As an interaction designer, I get excited about the possibilties that products like Google Desktop, Yahoo Widgets, Microsoft’s XAML platform and Adobe’s Apollo project bring. From a purely experience design perspective, it opens up a whole new world of possibilties. More specifically, we’re able to build experiences that are not relegated to a browser. It allows designers to use a finer, more powerful set of tools to carve out applications that better fit how we think and work. The notion of a URL destination to do things is challenged.
However, there turns out to be another, hidden benefit of keeping things in the browser: peace of mind. Users have come to accept that what happens inside the browser’s walls is inherently different from the rest of their desktop. It’s a perceived window to things – applications, information, all sorts of assets – that live elsewhere. Inversely, an association between the desktop and the data on your machine as well as the physical hardware itself, is also reinforced. What users have come to expect (and software vendors strive towards) is maintaining a buffer of protection between your world and the rest of the Internet.
Yesterday, Google released their new version of the their Google Desktop. One of their features allows users to search their data from other machines. To do this, Google stores your data (in encrypted form) on their machines for up to 30 days. I went through the installation process and Google should be given credit for amply warning users of the implications of this feature (though I’d venture to guess that most won’t read the warnings anyway). Neverhteless, the response from privacy advocates and bloggers generally has not been friendly at all. The Electronic Frontier Foundation voiced their concerns loud and clear.
I think there’s a lesson learned here. If the user has a clear idea of what is going out and coming in, then I think users will be more comfortable. I store my to-do lists elsewhere on Netvibes (a web-based personal portal). I’m fully aware that they are housing that data. In Google Desktop’s side bar, there’s a to-do list as well. I have no idea where that data is getting stored. And yes, it matters to me.
The challenge here is communication and being as transparent as possible about which pieces are going elsewhere and which aren’t. Icons. Colors. Something. Tell me when my data is going to your servers when it happens. Tell me when I’m pulling my data from your servers. Ask me before I put data on your servers for the first time. All of these things are unnecessary in a browser because it’s already understood that you are on someone else’s property. With a desktop, it’s far less clear, and in many cases, confusing.
Along with nice design and good usability, peace of mind no doubt factors into a user’s experience with a product. I don’t think software providers can deliver peace of mind in a disclaimer during installation. As the Internet becomes more pervasive on the desktop, it’s going to require more than that.