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Web Application User Interfaces
|Crunching large amounts of data interactively: A chart from the New York Times Business section.
In this section of the site, you'll find patterns, articles, presentations, and case studies about web-application design problems (some as-yet unsolved, others donated by readers). They are additions to the work you'll find in the Web Application Design Handbook: Best Practices for Web-Based Software.
Web Application Design Handbook (WADH) addresses the problems of designing applications with thousands of records and hundreds of different pages. What we mean by "web application" is something complex and data-driven--we don't mean the form you fill in to buy an Acme widget on Acme's web site but rather the back-office application that Acme employees use to process your purchase.
Much of the book's content was based on questions that came up in design meetings at Telcordia Technologies (ex-Bellcore), which develops the software that runs most of the land-based telecommunications in the U.S., and at Palisades Technology Partners (now owned by IBM), which develops most of the U.S. mortgage back-end software. Both companies have done good jobs of making their software usable for the technicians and bankers who use it.
For more about our goals for Web Application Design Handbook and these pages (and why we show the NY Times chart above), here is the book's preface (PDF).
Why are web applications often so bad?
We've noticed plenty of room for improvement in data-intensive web applications. As soon as you get behind the lovely home pages into the working part of many internal, intranet, and extranet sites... well, worms and snakes, just worms and snakes. Navigation strategies go out the window, impenetrable jargon prevails, interaction strategies are from the 1980s, and the reports are impossible to understand.
It's as if the developers and their managers forget everything they know about usable design as soon as they hear the word "internal." Part of the problem, we think, is that much of this software started out as something people inside the company used to solve their own problems, and then made available to their best customers and finally to anyone willing to pay for it. No one thought to check if these outsiders (or even new employees) could actually use it without a lot of training and handholding.
The effect on productivity can be serious. In Jakob Nielsen's recent work on intranets, he found that companies with poor intranet usability spent $12.9 million a year on the 18 most common tasks. Companies with good intranet usability spent only $7.5 million. He didn't address productivity costs of extranet systems but they are probably similar, except that extranets can also enhance or wreck your relationships with your best customers.
If you're trying to create a web application and have a particular problem you're struggling with, call us at 718 720-1169 or send a note to susan at fast-consulting.com. If we haven't written something up already, we'll see if we can figure out a solution or point you to another expert who's solved it already.
Chapter 13 contains a primer on software diagrams. However, since WADH came out, there have been two excellent books on the same topic. If you need to explain designs to clients, get these books:
- Dan M. Brown, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, 2007, Berkeley, CA: New Riders. Brown shows you how to create and use flow charts, site maps, wireframes, and other client deliverables. The book is well-written and very practical.
- Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, 2007, San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. More philosophical, perhaps, than Brown's book. It contains lots of good pictures and war stories.