To Hell With Web Applications

I’ve got an article I’m going to be posting in the next few weeks that touches on how the web is an abysmally poor platform for applications.
A few months back, there was some buzz in the community that web applications were now really starting to kick in and that better, richer experiences were to be had on the web. There’s also been a decent amount of writing about the usability of web pages, home pages, and the like. Others critique the usability of sites like Amazon and Ebay.
I don’t think such exercises are necessarily bad. Analysis is a good thing. However, I think the design community has really lowered the bar by simply accepting the web browser as an adequate means of application delivery without really scrutinizing its glaring flaws.

Now mind you, this doesn’t necessarily apply to content-heavy sites like news magazines or blogs. These are less applications and more publications. I’m really talking about the more involved applications that are pumped through the web – like financial apps and the like.
I think the most fundamental flaw in web applications is subjecting users to the web page paradigm. If a user interacts with a web app in any sort of way, the entire application effectively goes white and the application is effectively “redrawn.” The user is then burdened with the task of surveying this new page and understanding the implications of what he or she just did. In other words, they lose context. This is not a good thing.
Yes, certain conventions have come into place that people have grown accustomed to (e.g. “Add to Cart”). But as soon you start to introduce more involved controls, the page paradigm starts to get in the way. People are constantly re-establishing context when using a web application. This is a big reason why the browser Back button is so heavily relied upon. Users don’t feel like they’re manipulating persistent objects (a timesheet, a project, etc.) but rather are traversing a series of snapshots in time. This effectively increases the overall cognitive load of the web application.
Various tricks have come about to overcome this. Page element loading without refreshing the entire page (through technologies like XMLHTTP) helps alleviate things, as do pop-up windows that intimate some semblance of modality, but these are just hacks.
As interaction designers, we shouldn’t just accede these shortcomings and assume we have to work within them. Yes, the web browser is ubiquitous and we will inevitably have to work within its confines, but all the while, we should continue to press technology to take us beyond this platform.

1 Comment To Hell With Web Applications

  1. kareem

    I don’t konw that I entirely agree with you. While your points about losing context and increased congnitive load are _great_ ones, the paradigm has shifted away from the desktop.
    Users are becoming increasingly comfortable with redrawn pages when they perform an action, but it is our job as interaction designers to deliver an experience that provides as much context as possible.
    To throw the whole platform out is to look way past the advantages that it provides (easily accessible from anywhere, uniform controls, collaborative capabilities, etc).


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