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Vanilla Flavored: The Corporate Web Presence

The corporate web site used to have a brilliant excuse for its plain and simple execution. It needed the broadest possible distribution across browsers and operating systems. All customers, regardless of the technical specs of their rig, needed to be served. Some basic HTML, a few images, a conservative dollop of CSS and javascript. Transactions and data are all handled on the back end with a round trip to the server for each and every update of the display. And the display? Order up a screen resolution that serves 90%+ of the installed base as reported by server logs. Make that 800 x 600, just to be sure. This down level, conservative approach has been baked into enterprise content management systems and a boundary has been drawn around what’s possible with a corporate web presence. Mobile web was even simpler, a down level version of a down level experience. Rich internet applications (RIAs) were put into the same category as custom desktop apps, generally not worth the effort.

Back in 1998, Jakob Nielsen reported on the general conservatism of web users:

The usability tests we have conducted during the last year have shown an increasing reluctance among users to accept innovations in Web design. The prevailing attitude is to request designs that are similar to everything else people see on the Web.

When we tested advanced home page concepts we got our fingers slapped hard by the users: I don’t have time to learn special conventions for your site as one user said. Other users said, Just give it to us plain and simple, using interaction techniques we already know from other sites.

The Web is establishing expectations for narrative flow and user options and users want pages to fit within these expectations. A major reason for this evolving genre is that users frequently move back and forth between pages on different sites and that the entire corpus of the Web constitutes a single interwoven user experience rather than a set of separate publications that are accessed one at a time the way traditional books and newspapers are. The Web as a whole is the foundation of the user interface and any individual site is nothing but a speck in the Web universe.

Adoption of modern browsers was thought to be a very slow process. In 1999, Jakob Nielsen insists that we would be stuck with old browsers for a minimum of three years. Here was another reason to keep things plain and simple.

The slow uptake speeds and the bugs and inconsistencies in advanced browser features constitute a cloud with a distinct silver lining: Recognizing that we are stuck with old technology for some time frees sites from being consumed by technology considerations and focuses them on content, customer service, and usability. Back to basics indeed: that’s what sells since that’s what users want.

Over time, a couple things changed. The web standards movement gained traction with the people who build web sites. That meant figuring out what CSS could really do and working through the transition from table-based layouts to div-based layouts. Libraries like Jquery erased the differences between browser implementations of javascript. XMLhttpRequest, originally created for the web version of Microsoft’s Outlook, emerged as AJAX and turned into a defacto browser standard. The page reload could be eliminated as a requirement for a data refresh. The Webkit HTML engine was open sourced by Apple, and Google, along with a number of other mobile device makers, began to release Webkit-based browsers. With Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla all jumping on the HTML5 band wagon, there’s a real motivation to move users off of pre-standards era browsers. Even Microsoft has joined the Kill IE6 movement.

The computing power of the cloud combined with the transition from a web of documents to a web of applications has changed the equation. Throw in the rise of real-time and the emergence of social media: and you’ve got an entirely different ballgame. With the massive user embrace of the iPhone, and an iPad being sold every three seconds, we might want to re-ask the question: what do users want?

Jakob Nielsen, jumps back to 1993 in an effort to preserve his business model of plain and simple:

The first crop of iPad apps revived memories of Web designs from 1993, when Mosaic first introduced the image map that made it possible for any part of any picture to become a UI element. As a result, graphic designers went wild: anything they could draw could be a UI, whether it made sense or not.

It’s the same with iPad apps: anything you can show and touch can be a UI on this device. There are no standards and no expectations.

Worse, there are often no perceived affordances for how various screen elements respond when touched. The prevailing aesthetic is very much that of flat images that fill the screen as if they were etched. There’s no lighting model or pseudo-dimensionality to indicate raised or lowered visual elements that call out to be activated.

Don Norman throws cold water on gestures and natural user interfaces by saying they aren’t new and they aren’t natural:

More important, gestures lack critical clues deemed essential for successful human-computer interaction. Because gestures are ephemeral, they do not leave behind any record of their path, which means that if one makes a gesture and either gets no response or the wrong response, there is little information available to help understand why. The requisite feedback is lacking. Moreover, a pure gestural system makes it difficult to discover the set of possibilities and the precise dynamics of execution. These problems can be overcome, of course, but only by adding conventional interface elements, such as menus, help systems, traces, tutorials, undo operations, and other forms of feedback and guides.

Touch-based interfaces built around natural interaction metaphors have only made a life for themselves outside of the research laboratory for a few years now. However I tend to think that if these interfaces were as baffling for users as Norman and Nielsen make them out to be the iPhone and iPad would have crashed and burned. Instead they can barely make them fast enough to keep up with the orders.

The classic vanilla flavored corporate web site assumes that users have old browsers and don’t want anything that doesn’t look like everything else. All new flavors are inconceivable without years and years of work by standards bodies, research labs, and the odd de facto behavior blessed by extensive usability testing. There’s a big transition ahead for the corporate web presence. Users are way ahead and already enjoying all kinds of exotic flavors.

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