Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Web 2.0 Can Be Dangerous

Jacob Nielsen on Web 2.0 ...

"AJAX, rich Internet UIs, mashups, communities, and user-generated content often add more complexity than they're worth. They also divert design resources and prove (once again) that what's hyped is rarely what's most profitable.

... dangerous for your profits, that is. If you focus on over-hyped technology developments, you risk diverting resources from the high-ROI design issues that really matter to your users — and to your profits.

Unlike some older technologies (notably, Flash and PDF), Web 2.0 ideas are not inherently bad for users. They can be highly effective; we sometimes see examples of usability-enhancing Web 2.0 designs in our studies. But it's more common to find Web 2.0 ideas that either hurt users or simply don't matter to users' core needs. While the latter case might seem innocent, irrelevant website "enhancements" diminish profits because they indicate a failure to focus on those simpler design issues that actually increase sales and leads.

While there's no single definition of the much-abused "Web 2.0" term, I'll look at four trends that are often considered its defining elements:

* "Rich" Internet Applications (RIA)
* Community features, social networks, and user-generated content
* Mashups (using other sites' services as a development platform)
* Advertising as the main or only business model

AJAX and "Rich" Internet UI: Too Much Complexity
There's no doubt that the pageview model of interaction provides a scaled-back UI. But this also means that it's a simple UI. When all they can do is click a link to get a new page, users know how to operate the UI. People are in control of their own user experience and thus focus on your content.

"Rich" Internet UIs highlight the more flexible GUI design options that we've enjoyed in personal computing since 1984. Such interfaces can work well, especially for actual applications that offer true functionality and thus require a full GUI. But if you're just designing a website, the more advanced UIs often confuse users more than they help. Why? Because users engage less with websites than with apps. (And many applications are ephemeral apps that also have low user engagement.)

Take the most famous example of rich UI: AJAX, which lets designers update part of a page, rather than taking users to an entirely new page. Because less data download is required, these smaller updates are typically faster, decreasing response times.

Only a fool would deny the importance of response time and download speeds for the Web user experience. After all, we've known since 1968 that speedy interfaces feel better and support flow.

So yes, faster is better. But only if users continue to understand what's happening. We recently tested about 100 e-commerce sites and found many problems with AJAX shopping carts. In particular, users often overlooked modest changes, such as when they added something to the cart and it updated only a small area in a corner of the screen.

It's deadly for e-commerce sites when users can't operate the shopping cart, so it's usually best to stick to simple shopping-cart designs that everybody understands.

To get the required response times, spend your money on bigger servers and better hosting providers. And stick fewer gadgets on each page: these days, slow response times are often caused by too many complex, dynamic design elements that eat up server time.

As illustrated in a sidebar, an AJAX feature can work well on a website. And our testing did find one usable AJAX shopping cart. As always, the real question is not technology, but usability. If you use technology right, it can help sales. Still, the risk is typically too high with new technology because best practices haven't jelled yet. You can't just emulate designs you see around the Web — they're likely to be bad because they were hacked together by geeks drunk on the newest and coolest tech. And, sadly, "newest and coolest" usually translates into "untried and unusable" — and thus money-losing."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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