Thursday, December 7, 2006

Five Usability Challenges That Face Web Applications

In some ways, the development of a web applications pose a different set of challenges than those experienced in the development of software. Just the other day I found an interesting blog post on the Five Usability Challenges of Web-based Applications. The five challenges are:

  1. Scalability
  2. Visual Design
  3. Comprehension (on the part of the end-user)
  4. Interactivity
  5. Change Management
Let's focus on the first challenge - scalability. Scalability caught my attention because of the very nature of a web applications - or at least what I understand about them. Unlike software, a change to something like the interface can be made and immediately and rolled out to users of web applications. Most software changes, on the other hand, can be controlled by the end-user. For example, I can control the Automatic Updates feature in Windows by turning it on or turning it off, thus blocking any updates that may do something like change the interface of a commonly used program (such as the new IE7 Microsoft recently rolled out). I bet a lot of people who did download the update recently became confused when the launched the program for the first time to see no menu bar (i.e. - File, Edit, View)

In a web application, any changes made are propagated out to hundreds, if not thousands of users whether they want them or not. The blog posting I linked to provides and interesting case study with the social networking website Facebook.

Two things regarding the challenge of scalability should be addressed. First, you need understand the broad base of users. Not everyone is going to like or understand the changes being made even if they were made with the best intentions. Second, when changes are made users need to have some control over the change and how it will affect them. The same blog post provides another example with the popular movie rental web site, Netflix, regarding user control over wish lists.

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