Tag: design


Using web technology for applications

May 16th, 2010 — 4:07pm

I read Ben Ward the other day. In the wake of all the fuss about flash from Steve Jobs and whether or not H264 is good (for example) Ben is worried that we might forget what the web is for. Roughly speaking, he looks to the web as an interconnected set of documents and data. This ability to move freely from one space to another is its main reason for being, and complaints about the inability to provide high grade user interfaces are out of scope. He makes a good point, but the comments on his post show that there are other views, and the issues, perhaps not surprisingly, come down to what is appropriate to the circumstances.

I write applications for businesses, to support business processes, and which use forms so that users can interact with the business process. Generally, a user base for an application is counted in the 10s. Some are in-house, and some are public, in the sense that users come from different organisations. Technically, I have, roughly speaking, a choice between a client side application with remote data access, a server side application using remote terminal technology, and a server side application using a browser. Out of all this, I choose to use a browser. Why do I do that, and what am I expecting to achieve?

These applications change quite frequently as users feed back their requirements and business processes change, and even with a small user base I can be stuck with a range of working environments. That gives me a problem of control. As it happens, and by design, the browser interface gives me:

  • Control over software updates.
  • To be fair, we are well used to automatic updates of client side software nowadays, but, if the application users are all from different organisations, we can run into trouble with security policies. Even for an in-house application, individual users may still spoil the update process somehow.

  • Operating system independence.
  • I don’t have to worry about whether clients use Windows, MacOS or Linux. I’m not dependent on a particular widget set or o/s file handling capability. I certainly don’t have to worry about what happens when a client organisation upgrades all its computers to Vista or Windows 7.

    I don’t even have to worry about the operating system that the server runs. Much. I can write o/s independent code if I want to, and upgrade effects can be minimised. That would not be true if I was using a terminal server approach.

  • Hardware independence
  • At a pinch, a user can still use the application from a mobile phone.

    If I get the css right, it might even be easy to use from a mobile phone

  • Location independence
  • The client computer does not need any special software, so the application is accessible from the next door office, home, someone else’s home, an internet cafe, the international space station – anywhere.

  • New user facilitation
  • New user? Point them to a browser. No software to install. No work for the IT support team. Sorted.

So far, so obvious, but what about the quality of the UI? Do I need Flash? Javascript? Well, history comes into play here. My early excursions into this field involved users in many different organisations, using who knew what o/s and hardware. We looked at Flash, but there appeared to be version differences that meant we still had to work hard on compatibility, and the complexity of the interface did not warrant it. I was also seriously put off, as a user, by the download times of flash scripts (at the time) and I wanted to give the best impression possible. So we started out with HTML, with frames and a bit of javascript. The javascript was kept to a minimum, because we had no way to guarantee that the user would have it switched on. I think we managed well enough, and most of what I have needed to do has been perfectly well supported by HTML.

There have been times when a UI requirement is difficult in HTML alone. Too much back and forth from the server makes some things slow and clunky. Javascript can do some wonderful things in the right hands and it can be a boon for those occasions. However, the general rule I follow is that the UI must be usable with javascript turned off.

Anything else? Yes – links. Links and browser tabs (or new windows). With HTML you get linking for free, as it were. I like to design applications where data is cross referenced, so there should be links everywhere (I confess, I don’t always manage this, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to.) And if you, the user, open a link in a new window you can keep the information there to help you. Of the various applications I use, one of the most difficult limits me to one screen at a time. If I happen to have forgotten some detail I need I have to navigate to the information, write it on a piece of paper, and navigate back. Links and browser tabs are the answer here.

As it turns out, I seem to be pretty much within Ben Ward’s concept of webbishness. My applications by design provide all the hardware and o/s independence implied by HTTP/HTML, and I can support all the interconnections anyone might need or want, within the bounds of privacy and access controls. I should award myself a pat on the back, but I must remember that this only happens because I want it to happen (for the reasons listed above) and because I believe (based on experience) that the UI my applications provide is perfectly adequate. If I believed something else then I would have to do something different. Would I then be demanding universal Flash? Probably not. With my small communities I can discuss the compromises, face up to them, and use the best tool for the job. As I said above, it comes down to what is appropriate to the circumstances.

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