Rich user experiences

Fortunately, technologies exist that enable you to deliver a better-than-browser user experience without having to manually install code on client machines” (Thompson, 2007)

We expect to see many new web applications over the next few years, both truly novel applications, and rich web reimplementations of PC applications.” (O’Reilly, 2005)

The push to introduce desktop application-style functionality into a web application, combining desktop and online benefits, is growing, exemplified by a number of recent Web 2.0 applications such as Creately. Creately offers many powerful tools to create diagrams and work on them collaboratively with colleagues through a web browser. It provides an extremely rich interface that resembles desktop software much more than it does the slow, static web pages that used to be the norm on the internet and is a perfect example of the ‘rich web reimplementations’ O’Reilly mentions.

One of the best practices for Web 2.0 apps is to design around simplicity. Creately, however, has a complicated interface filled with such a wide range of tools that provide complex functionality and options such that a typical user may never even touch some of them. On the other hand, the interface design draws upon standard software appearance conventions (such as placement of menus and recognisable icons to make it easy to learn. It should also be noted that one of Creately’s selling points is that it supplies all the tools users might need, not just the basics. It’s there for users looking to create (sometimes collaboratively) complex diagram files. Like Photoshop is to Paint, Creately is to primitive diagram creation programs.

Aral Balkan listed (amongst other user interface design principles for web applications) “Don’t sell what you can’t deliver”. He elaborates – “Users must not be given Graphical User Interface (GUI) expectations that cannot be met (or can only be partially met) within a Web User Interface (WUI). Whenever OS or GUI expectations are set, they must be fully met. That said, the application must try and meet OS expectations as much as possible, especially for ergonomic features such as keyboard shortcuts and navigation but also for expected auxiliary helpers such as tooltips.” On the main page of the Creately site, the main image is of its complex user interface, clearly selling a powerful, OS application experience. What’s more, (as the promotional demonstration video shows), Creately delivers, sitting confidently at the feature-heavy end of the spectrum and meeting the expectations it instills.

Another best practice is the provision of effective search functionality and here again, Creately deviates from textbook ‘best practice’. Although it provides no prominent search feature, it does offer categorised and easy to peruse help links. Also, the site is based more upon creating data than searching for it and the main information likely to be searched for is help on how to use the tools available. The content on the site is basically entirely centred on supporting the functionality and, as such, is made up mostly of help topics and information about the company.

In this case almost every diagramming tool imaginable has been incorporated but instead of this being an example ‘because they could, they did and consequently decreased usability’, it’s a positive selling point since Creately is supposed to satisfy its customers by offering all that a user could want, especially the features that might normally be left out of similar programs for being too obscure or unlikely to be used much.

In summary, although Creately appears to break many of the ‘best practice’ rules, it does so with good reason and demonstrates a successful embrace of the growing trend towards providing extremely rich interfaces and experiences through web browsers. It might be burdened with a massive range of features, but I see it as targeting users that want such a toolset and that Creately has been constructed to meet their needs very smartly.

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