2008, the Year of the Rich Internet Application (RIA):
This time each year, technophiles are asked to part the curtains and peek into the coming year. While last year brought unprecedented growth in RIA adoption— especially by Fortune 500 companies—RIA adoption in 2008 brings a new onslaught of risks, rewards, challenges, and opportunities for companies of all sizes.
Let’s start with something positive. Last year, the overall demand for RIAs outpaced the qualified supply chain. This trend will continue. This year, companies facing both job growth and decline will need to continue to leverage innovative, usable RIAs to hone their competitive edge to outpace their competition and improve core business practices with fast, reliable, productivity-enhancing internal and external tools. However, building and deploying effective RIAs is not something companies can jump into with blind assumptions.
Without the right leadership at the helm and the right team in the trenches, the world of RIAs is fraught with risk that can cost dearly. The flip side of the coin is that good RIAs can provide your customers with user experiences that leave your competition in the dust. If you keep the following risks and rewards front of mind, you can turn the 2008 RIA challenge into successful opportunities.
Risk: Developer inexperience
Reward: RIAs that work result in user adoption
Since many underlying RIA technologies are still emerging, finding developers with the appropriate level of experience can be tough. Thinking that you can find good Java or .Net developers immediately turn them into expert Flex or Silverlight developers is not good thinking. Inherent to these powerful new frameworks are challenges that require mastery of the technologies. Rich client applications differ greatly from server, HTML, or desktop applications and require very certain development expertise. Beware the typical developer optimistic mindset that believes problem-solving skills are platform independent.
Risk: Designer inexperience
Reward: Well-designed RIAs make people want to use them
The gap between sexy and usable is huge and dangerous. A great print or web designer is not necessarily a great application designer, especially not right out of the gate. It takes a considerable shift of discipline and time on the front for designers to transition from page based metaphors to RIA necessities such as features, tasks, hierarchical navigation schemes, and transitional animations. Oddly, understanding how to leverage new technologies like AIR and Silverlight means that designers may have to unlearn some of what they have relied on in the past as successful solutions.
Forrester Research stat: 70 to 80 percent of all IT projects fail. The number one reason why they fail is a lack of user acceptance, not technical issues (caveat: user acceptance may be poor simply because an application just doesn’t work). An effective RIA designer who respects user input and usability measurement studies will dramatically mitigate the failure rate of an IT project. Look for RIA designers with experience and/or education in human factors.
Risk: Poor hires
Reward: Powerful designer/developer collaboration
Managers may see the words "Flex experience" on a resume and assume that, in-and-of-itself, Flex experience makes the candidate qualified. Differentiating between experience and quality is very hard for an IT manager to assess since they may have not yet seen what a good RIA developer really looks like. The same premise holds true for design talent. Hiring the wrong developer or designer obviously will likely point to costly disaster on any project.
Consider outsourcing to proven experts. Or build teams consisting of blended internal and external talent and give them prudent product management guidance.
Risk: Lack of process and culture
Reward: Integrated workflow and new behaviors
Let’s say that you lucked out and put together a great team. Now you have to get them to collaborate. Establishing the right culture to enable the team to work together is critical to the success of creating engaging applications. It takes a delicate combination of humility, passion, confidence, knowledge, process, and realism to execute against business and user requirements.
Also, carefully consider reporting structures. Should the designer sit in Marketing? IT? Companies trying to build effective teams may be challenged by traditional organizational and hierarchical silos and boundaries to get the right people in the right room with the right priorities and agendas.
Risk: Messaging from platform providers
Reward: Great news across the board
Both Adobe and Microsoft have emerging RIA platforms (AIR/Flex/Flash and Silverlight respectively). While the hype for Silverlight is hitting stride, currently the Adobe Flash/Flex/AIR platform is the way to go for most robust online applications. Microsoft’s roadmap is very exciting, and I believe that we will see some great moves forward on their platform in the next 12 months. However, the Silverlight runtime just does not offer enough functionality or the ubiquitous reach that the Flash Player does.
The opportunity, no matter the platform, is abundant. Microsoft entering the RIA game is great news for everyone, even Adobe. They have helped to validate that RIAs are the future of how companies will engage, inform, retain, and entertain, their customers.
Risk: RIA providers on overload
Reward: Consistent home runs
Many providers in the RIA space are growing more rapidly than they can realistically support— flirting with implosion and growth rates of 1,000 percent and higher. Without dedicated, qualified team members in place, RIA providers have no business taking on work just to take on work. If you come across an RIA provider who has people available immediately, beware. At EffectiveUI, we would rather turn away work than fatigue or dilute our human resources.
Risk: Inadequate budgets
Reward: Proving the value of an RIA
The return on investing into a great RIA—even a simple one— can be astounding. Applying the same budget approach as you would, for example, a micro site or an HTML calculator is not the model to follow. Find guidance and build your case. Deploying an application that is truly going to engage users and deliver a measurable ROI requires appropriate budgeting of dollars and time.
Risk: Inappropriate intention
Reward: Focused discipline for the job
Hiring your advertising agency to build a critical business application is like asking your interior designer to engineer a new building. While both disciplines are important and somewhat related, they absolutely require pinpointed expertise and focus. Make sure that the person or company you engage to build your RIA understands and respects the difference.
Great overview of where the Flex market is going, and what it takes to create great Flex RIAs.
Creating balanced Flex development teams is one of the key ingredients. Just to add to what you mentioned, I’ve created a free whitepaper which helps define for HR people and managers some clarified job descriptions in the new Flash/Flex development marketplace; more details here.
This may give a little background as to what precisely constitutes a well-balanced Flex dev team, and what are the range of skill sets present.