Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Are Web Interfaces “Good Enough”?

Category: Showcase

We have been talking about how the desktop and web experiences are converging, and Jeff Atwood is asking Are Web Interfaces “Good Enough”?

His example is µTorrent, and how the new web UI is so similar to the downloadable version:

uTorrent Web UI

uTorrent Winforms

After spending about a year interacting with µTorrent exclusively through Remote Desktop, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how good the web UI is. It aggressively exploits the latest Ajax techniques to replicate most of the rich GUI functionality of µTorrent in a browser. But the web UI is still a pale shadow of the full-blown Windows UI. There are small but important details missing throughout, and part of the pleasure of using µTorrent was luxuriating in its intense attention to detail, its wealth of well-designed data readouts. Using the web UI is like drinking watered-down beer. It doesn’t satisfy.

(Emphasis mine)

So he asks, does it matter? Does it matter if the attention to usability detail is no longer there in web apps, as long as we can “get the job done” and are still reasonably usable? This is a common theme in web apps…there are analogies with the online office apps and image editiors. The usability is actually decent in most of these apps…it’s just that they miss some of the little details that help make users passionate.

He also has some comments on Flash versus Ajax. Where Bruce Eckel argues the future of many web apps is Flash, Attwood says:

I think Eckel is too quick to dismiss the utility of browser-based JavaScript applications. Yes, they’re painful to create and debug, but they exploit the path of least resistance. And if I have learned anything in my entire life, it is this: never bet against the path of least resistance. You will lose. Every time. What Eckel neglects to consider is this:

  • The typical user only touches a fraction of the functionality in most applications. Switching to an online spreadsheet like EditGrid or WikiCalc is hardly a catastrophic loss when you only used 1 percent of Excel’s functionality to begin with.
  • Online applications may be awkward, but they do one key thing that local applications can never do: embed snippets of live content in a web page. Instacalc may never be Excel, but so what? It’s a completely different use case. Instacalc is ideal for embedding bite-sized, interactive nuggets of calculation next to a paragraph of text on a web page. It’s the YouTube of spreadsheets.
  • Eckel sees a world of JavaScript and DHTML that’s inappropriate for large applications. I see a world of large applications that are inappropriate for most users. It’s high time we scaled down and scaled back. If anything, this is a beneficial side-effect of the limitations inherent to the platform.
  • Posted by Dion Almaer at 12:14 pm

    3.7 rating from 30 votes


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    Heck, not only is it similar, from my perspective, its *preferable*. Cleaner, clearer, more modern.

    Comment by Justin Gehtland — March 15, 2007

    I thought my google homepage was broken… Same titles in two feeds.. lol

    Comment by jeka911 — March 15, 2007

    Poor guy…he’s using IE7.

    Comment by Michael — March 15, 2007

    @jeka911 I was thinkin the same thing :P

    Comment by xxdesmus — March 15, 2007

    As long as web interfaces attempt to mimic desktop interfaces I think they will come up short. However, a web page can offer a very compelling interface. I think it is really all about how you approach the problem.

    Comment by Adam Sanderson — March 15, 2007

    We develop XP-looking web-based intranet applications at work. Benefit with that is the user feels “safe” when using the interface. He will recognize familiar widgets and know how to interact with them.

    I wouldn’t use this approach for a web page though. It all depends who the tool will be for.

    Comment by José Jeria — March 15, 2007

    In my opinion, he needs to make distinction of lack of features within a specific web interface rather than pulling all web interfaces under the same comb. But in the sake of µTorrent, I’m sure they put in the features needed to remotely administrate the application. After all, it isn’t meant to be a substitute of the windows GUI but rather to enable you to manage your downloads when you’re not at home. Now, if the developers of µTorrent would want it to be an exact replica, they would’ve made it so.

    Comment by Andy — March 15, 2007

    Web interfaces have come a long way but they still have a ways to go IMHO. Only Windows users would think that they have come close enough to desktop interfaces.

    Comment by Twist — March 15, 2007

    here here, more is less and it’s the collaboration stupid comes to mind

    Comment by Al — March 15, 2007

    highly impressive.

    I didn’t try it because I assumed it wouldn’t be that good. I think that’s something that should also be considered… what people expect from web applications is different.

    Comment by Dougal Matthews — March 15, 2007

    Great post Dion. I’m really interested in the migration of apps from the desktop to the web. I agree that the future is likely in the direction of JavaScript/borwser based apps rather than Flash because that is where the majority of the development community is. The innovators are more likely to be script kiddies than flash designers.

    Comment by Rob Scherer — March 15, 2007

    It is not fair to compare web apps to desktop apps in any way. There are many reasons (and the list is not complete):

    1. Huge differences among browsers almost force the developers to sideline some great ideas and features or at least find a not-so-good cross browser solution, more so when IE is no longer the most dominant browser and you have to give due respect to other browsers.
    2. Different levels of standards compliance by browser manufacturers make the path of a web developer all the more difficult, again forcing him to incorporate hacks and bloating the code with browser detection and stuff.
    3. Network and Internet latencies will always be there, no matter how small, to hinder the ultimate experience.
    4. Moreover, web development languages work at a very high level thus making them slow and less powerful. Unless we find a better alternative to how we parse scripting languages, the performance will always be slow.

    It is like comparing a salaried employee who struggles for resources just to survive to a businessman who is more concerned about effective and efficient utilization of abundant resources.

    I guess we should see web as an extension of desktop and not as a replacement. We should start understanding that they both have different advantages and lets assign tasks to them keeping this in mind.

    Comment by Manu Goel — March 16, 2007

    We cant compare them of course but nowadays their functions overlap more and more, for example having a piece of software on your PC as well as online.

    The user is left to decide which one is more conveninet to use.

    Comment by ajaxus — March 16, 2007

    very true, thats the point…. the user always has the option to decide what to use and what not to use….. and that is a personal preference….. while I may not like using online versions of spreadsheets and editors, someone else may like them….. but no one is stopping me from using desktop based spreadsheet applications if I need more power….. and it would be wrong on my part to expect the exact same functionality, responsiveness and feature set from the online version…… it simply has a different purpose

    Comment by Manu Goel — March 16, 2007

    might wanna be carefull you dont get a lawsuit for showing you download a film and some TV episodes with torrent !!!!


    (perhaps the torrent using a linux dist wouldve been less controversial)

    Comment by Jester — March 16, 2007

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