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Archive: 19 June 2005

Increasing the Strength of Ajax

There’s been some comment recently about how Ajax programming requires a different approach to UI and user notification.  What Jeff Veen wrote about Designing for the Subtlety of Ajax, and Alex Bosworth‘s post on the top 10 Ajax Mistakes, are just two examples.

I pretty much agree with both pieces.  I’ve missed upates more than once on Ajax pages, just because I’m too used to how pages usually work.  I’ll click on something and then my attention will, out of habit, instantly go elsewhere—another window, another application, another computer, whatever—and keep subconscious track of what was happening in the window where I clicked, monitoring it in my peripheral vision for the flicker of a page reload.  Eventually there will be a little tickle in the back of my brain that says, “Hey, didn’t that site ever do anything?”  When I finally look straight at it, I realize that it did something quite a while ago, probably a split second after my mental focus moved away.  Instead of being efficient, I was wasting time waiting for a refresh that never came.

One might think it’s time for an “Ajax enabled” badge on pages so we know “better pay attention, ’cause this ain’t your father’s Web page”.  I don’t think that’s the way to go, however.  I think what’s needed is a more mature HCI design sense.  Web design has long relied on the page-update refresh to tell the user something has happened; this was such a part of the Web’s fabric that designing around it was almost unconscious.  There hasn’t been a need for sophisticated HCI considerations… until now.

In other words, Web design is going to need to grow up, and become more HCI-oriented than it has been.  The usability of a Web site will become as much about how you let the user know they’ve done something as it is about getting them to the thing they want to do.  In addition to getting the page to look inviting and present the information well, it will be necessary to obsess over the small details, implement highlights and animations and pointers—not to wow the user, but to help them.

In this endeavor, it’s worth remembering that there is a very large and long-standing body of research on HCI.  For years, many HCI experts have complained that the Web design field is making all sorts of errors that could be avoided if we’d just pay attention to what they’re telling us—a criticism which was not totally inaccurate.  Some Web design experts shot back that the Web was a different medium than the sorts of things HCI people studied, and anyway, the Web was not an application—and that rejoinder was also not totally inaccurate.  But with Ajax, the Web-application dichotomy is disappearing.  The retort is becoming less accurate, and the criticism more accurate.

I don’t claim to know what should be done.  The simplest update notification would be to set the visibility of the body element to hidden for half a second, and then back to visible, thus visually simulating a page refresh.  Crude, but it would play directly to users’ expectations.  The fading yellow highlight in Basecamp gets a lot of attention (and imitators), and that’s a good way to go too.  We could envision tossing a red outline onto something that changed, or animating a target-reticle effect on the updated content, or any number of other ideas.  Again I say: the decades of work done in HCI research are a resource we should not ignore.

From my perspective, there are at least two good things in the Ajax world.  First is that the need for understanding and using CSS, XHTML, and the DOM has never been greater.  Okay, it’s a slightly selfish thing, but it leads directly into the second good thing: that the need for standards support has never been more critical.  If a browser wants to play in the Ajax space—if it wants to be a serious platform for delivering applications—then it’s going to have to get along with the others.  It’s going to have to support the standards.

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