In a Comfort Zone
By Jonathan Goodyear
When my company begins building a new Web site or Web application for a client, one of the first things we typically do is engage a design firm to come up with the right look. Recently, however, I have begun to question why most people feel compelled to make their Web sites so unique. After all, what s wrong with a little familiarity?
I enjoy using the various applications in the Microsoft Office suite of applications because, as soon as I open one of them, I can instantly figure out how to do the basics because I am in a familiar environment. The wording in the menus and menu locations are the same. I know what all the toolbar icons mean. The behavior of the application is the same, as well. I m in a comfort zone.
That comfort zone transcends the Microsoft application suite, as well. Other application vendors, such as Macromedia and Adobe, have chosen to follow most of the UI standards established by Microsoft; not because they are the best, but because that s what most people feel comfortable with. That s an important distinction to recognize.
Contrast that familiarity with the Web world in which you practically have to start from scratch when learning to interact with each new Web site you encounter. Sometimes menus are on the top of the page, sometimes to the left or right. Menu wording and arrangement are often very different between sites. Plus, there are precious few standardized icons. Wouldn t it be great if there was an icon that stood for Login, About Us, Contact Us, and the myriad other common features that almost every Web site has, so that we didn t have to waste screen real estate spelling these things out (often differently from each other)?
There are some people, like Jakob Nielsen, who have written quite a bit about Web site usability, but that is not the same as standardization. Standardization is not always the most usable by nature, but becomes the most usable because of sheer dominance of mindshare. For instance, there are keyboard layouts that are far superior to the standard QWERTY design, but I m not turning in my QWERTY keyboard anytime soon. It s the standard, and I m completely familiar with it.
Why do I bring this up now? Because there are a couple of new features coming in ASP.NET v2.0 that can help the concept of standardization and familiarity in the next generation of Web applications if they are used properly. The Menu and TreeView controls have many enhancements that allow you to build Web applications much more easily than in the past that look, feel, and behave similarly to Windows applications. Other controls that will definitely help make your Web application s user experience more familiar are the MultiView and Wizard controls. They enable you to handle a multi-step process as easily as if you were using one of the many wizards strewn throughout the Windows OS. If you can t wait until ASP.NET v2.0 ships, several component vendors, such as ComponentArt (http://www.componentart.com), sell high-powered controls that have pre-canned formats that allow you to build a Windows XP-like interface for your Web application in no time.
Perhaps this month s column makes me sound boring, but I truly believe that Web applications are only as useful as the ability of their user to understand and interact with them. I m not saying that you can t add some flair to your Web applications. For example, my team is using the Themes, Skins, and Personalization features of ASP.NET v2.0 to set the colors of a Web application we are building to match the appropriate university colors of the person who logs in. What I m saying is that you should try to avoid adding so much flair to your Web application that it becomes confusing to interact with. Macromedia Flash is one of the biggest culprits in the too much flair category. Keep the fancy graphics and interactivity in the content portion of the page not in the layout and navigation.
As with anything in life, moderation is key. Trust me that the users of your Web application will appreciate your efforts to make it as familiar and easy to use as possible. Plus, just think of the time and money you ll save by avoiding all the non-essential fluffy user interface design. Stick with what works and what people know.
Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSoft (http://www.aspsoft.com), an Internet consulting firm based in Orlando, FL. He s a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) and author of Debugging ASP.NET (New Riders). Jonathan also is a contributing editor for asp.netPRO. E-mail him at mailto:[email protected] or through his angryCoder eZine at http://www.angryCoder.com.