Slaves to the browser

The browser has become the de facto interface for everything but most Web-based user interfaces stink

The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines slavery as "submission to a dominating influence," while Wikipedia notes that "slaves -- are ... compelled to perform labour or services." I mention these definitions because I believe we have become enslaved by badly designed Web-based user interfaces.

The browser has become the de facto interface for everything from configuring and monitoring hardware to providing access to critical applications because its use has freed us from most of the traditional problems of application distribution and management.

On the other hand, Web interface technologies have been adopted sheep-like by legions of developers, and this has led us into an egregious functional quagmire: Web-based user interfaces that, to use a technical phrase, stink.

In Gearhead recently I've been writing about my quest to find an e-commerce solution that integrates with Quickbooks and my dissatisfaction with many recommended services. One of my biggest complaints is the clunkiness of the user experience provided by their Web interfaces.

The most common problem with browser-based UIs is you click on a menu item and the page refreshes offering you more links. Each click and refresh gets you only one more small step closer to doing something useful.

This click/refresh process gets really tedious when you are trying to do something like change configuration data for an entire list of products. You need so many click/refreshes to get to the first product, and then more to get to its attributes, and when you've made the changes you click "Save", wait for the refresh, make one or more clicks, and wait for one or more refreshes to get back to product selection, click to select the next product, wait for the refresh ... it is a process that gets old fast.

Make a mistake in entering some data and you'll get yet another page refresh, which is as likely as not to take you back to whatever part of the form you were filling in with an error message listing your sins of omission but completely devoid of all of the data you just entered.

Or even worse, some of the data is there but the various check boxes you unchecked are now rechecked or vice versa! Oh, and your passwords are cleared. And you don't notice these mistakes until you try to resubmit the page whence you get to go round the process one more time.

The fact is that Web interfaces have mostly been overused and under-designed. Yes, I know they simplify support by centralizing applications and allow for all kinds of operational benefits like global upgrading of the user base, but when the trade-off is poor performance as experienced by the user, red flags should be popping up.

We've seen some movement toward solving these Web UI problems through the use of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) and Flash, but far too many product and service companies, particularly the more established ones, have yet to embrace these technologies.

And you guys in IT are just as guilty. You build or buy products and services with Web front-ends because its easier. But do you consider the overhead those Web applications place on the users? I'm betting we'll look back in a decade and see these crappy Web-based user interfaces were responsible for significant productivity drops in our enterprises.

Until we get over the "Wow, that's cool, I can do that through the browser" factor and start to ask "Why should doing that with the browser be so slow and tedious?" users will be doomed to struggle with lame, slow, clumsy click/refresh interfaces that waste time and try patience. So, what are you going to do about it? Will you remain a slave to the browser?

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Mark Gibbs

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