Friday, May 6th, 2005

Ajaxian UI Issues

Category: Ajax, Usability

We were just talking to a UI/information architect, who was complaining about handling users who have JavaScript turned off, and how Ajax has a barrier, in that he can’t get budget to “write the application twice”.

The problem with “working without JavaScript turned on” is interesting.

However, these days I think that this problem is basically gone. Gone are the days of people turning off JavaScript. Do you know of anyone who doesn’t have it turned on?

Also, with the ongoing growth of Ajax there are MORE reasons to have it turned on. It didn’t stop Google from doing Google Maps :)

It is also interesting to note that GMail launched with cool features, and then later came out with a toned down value. They made a value judgement… and for them it WAS worth a rewrite.

The interesting decision of course is the approach.

Approach 1: Conservative

I just want to use some Ajaxian components to help out if needed. E.g. I will do server-side validation via ajax to get the best of both worlds (client and server), yet if JS is turned off, it will obviously work with JUST server-side validation.

This means that everything works, and there is minimal extra work.

Approach 2: Bold

My app needs to break the mold. I want to do a kick arse mapping system and I am sorry, but there juts is NO WAY TO DO THIS without JavaScript turned on. Sorry guys. Turn it on.

In reality…

It depends on your app, and if it makes sense to jump to a bold approach. You shouldn’t do that for the sake of it, ONLY if the functionality gain forces you too.

The choice often isn’t “I want to do this twice”, it is “what is the best way to do it once”. And, a lot of components will failback to non-ajax modes too, so you won’t even have to do extra work in conservative mode. Over time this will get better and better.

The REAL UI concern, is that people are used to the “click on something [button] or [link], wait for the page to paint”, and they are going to have to unlearn some of these things.

THAT is the real issue. We need to be careful to represent a nice usable interface that doesn’t confuse.

Posted by Dion Almaer at 2:41 pm

3.3 rating from 6 votes


Comments feed

Anyone who regularly browses far and wide with Javascript turned off should be very familiar with the agony of defeat. Supporting the tiny minority of users wo fall into this category reminds me of this old post of mine about Netscape 4.x at the time:

Comment by Brent Ashley — May 6, 2005

I would think the larger issue would not be graybeards who turn off JavaScript, but users who are visually impaired and use screen readers hooked into their browsers. Does Gmail’s AJAX interface work with a screen reader? I don’t know.

Comment by Chris Klimas — May 6, 2005

I think it’s less of an issue with people turn off JavaScript and more with people who (a) use an outdated browser–there are certainly more IE 4.0 users than people with JavaScript turned off, and (b) people whose misconfigured corporate firewalls prevent JavaScript from working correctly.

Comment by Michael Moncur — May 6, 2005

I recently came across a new concept which seems to be catching on. If the person is unable to use their web browser to complete a purchase on some website because they are afraid of turning on Javascript they can use this toll free 800 number to phone in their order. I am not sure how long this has been around but I am starting to notice lots of websites have phone numbers listed, sometimes very prominently. I guess these companies even have call centers where people answer each call. These Javascript fearing people may even be able wrap up their computers and bury them in their backyards so they do not get infect with some insidious virus. With this new trend in using phones to communicate they have no use for those dangerous web browser features.

(fyi, tongue lodged deep in cheek)

Comment by Brennan Stehling — May 6, 2005

I just cannot see the right keyword in this topic: accessibility.
Turning off Javascript is mandatory for some categories of disable users in order to gain content.
And there are W3C-WAI guidelines for this purpose:

“6.3 Ensure that pages are usable when scripts, applets, or other programmatic objects are turned off or not supported. If this is not possible, provide equivalent information on an alternative accessible page”.

While Google Maps are involved in Information Visualization, in which covering visual disabilities could be a nonsense (anyway, something can be done), you cannot invoke impossibility for Ajax applications that just substitute some form-based interaction with xmlHttpRequest interaction.
Accessibility-aware developers are already at work to find solutions ( and hopefully provide libraries of code acting as middleware to manage the double work as a unique process.
Here is the accessibility issue: why fork the upcoming web in two distinct directions (web standards vs ajax) when is possible to join them? So, I hope the tumultous run toward Ajax have the patience to leave a blank space in software architecture, waiting to fill it with accessibility compliant procedures.
This is not primarily an ethical node, or a purist pedantry, it’s a commercial issue: in many countries (i’m naturally thinking about mine, Italy) you already cannot anymore sell your ajax not accessible application to public subjects. This means, you’re investing money and hardly developing software that cuts you out from a good half of your market targets.

Comment by Andrea Martines — May 7, 2005

I think this will be an important decision as AJAX takes off. It’s always been an issue with devices such as mobiles, different browsers, and so on. Hopefully, some of the high-level libraries will offer components which both ways, at least in some cases.

There are AJAX usability guidelines and I’ve documented some AJAX usability patterns. They cover this general area of AJAX usability, and some of the advice, such as incorporation of plain text and CSS, could help to bridge the gap between AJAX and non-AJAX UIs.

Comment by Michael Mahemoff — May 8, 2005

This “tiny minority” everyone keeps referring to has historically been 1 out of every 10 web users.

Comment by Chris Griego — May 9, 2005

… fresh on the heels of Mozilla announcing that, due to security problems, people using Firefox should turn off javascript.

Comment by Chris Norris — May 9, 2005

Quote:’This “tiny minority” everyone keeps referring to has historically been 1 out of every 10 web users.’

I would rephrase this statement to ‘This “tiny minority” everyone keeps referring to has historically been 1 out of every 10 Customers.’

So the question for me is more “Can I afford to do without 1 out of 10 customers?” An if you add other factors (old browsers, different platforms) then it becomes probably 3 out of 10. Lets say you’ll get 1000 hits a day it adds up to 100 – 300 web users/customers.

And if I can’t afford to miss out on this business, can I afford to put in the extra money and effort to develop a fall back site? Will my customer pay for this? And why should he/she?

Comment by PeterNZ — May 17, 2005

I think we must also design UI with accessibility in mind. In the long run, I’m sure it’ll pay off as much as conforming to the standards.

Here comes the question: to AJAX or not?

For myself, AJAX can play an important role for web usability because of it’s interactive nature. Having said that, AJAX can’t be used to implement solutions but to support it. The UI in itself should work without AJAX. It’ll be less interactive but will accomodate every browser without javascript.

AJAX is an important addition to the tools web designers and programmers can use to bring great UI in web sites… CSS and images are other such tools. They shouldn’t be essential for the web page in itself, they must be used to add value.

Comment by Sylvain Vachon — June 15, 2005

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