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The Multitaskers

MITX Session on RIAs

Ria_1[this post originally appeared on the PARTNERS+simons blog]

When speaking with our clients about their web site design and development needs, we often talk about the trend away from linear, HTML experiences toward more Rich Internet Applications.

The reasons for this shift are many:

  • HTML has was originally designed to present and link content, not replicate applications. With the overall migration to broadband, rich media, and web-services type experiences, HTML has simply not been able to keep up.
  • The introduction of Flash added an element of interactivity not realized with HTML alone, but it too has shortcomings. It's not appropriate for enterprise applications and the code can be tough to maintain.
  • RIAs overcome a lot of these shortcomings and present the interactivity, richness and responsiveness of desktop applications (e.g., single-screen, continuously updated information without having to wait for page reloads), which translates into much more sophisticated user experiences.

So, we were excited to participate in yesterday's MITX event sponsored by Adobe called Creating the Most Effective Online Customer Experience. Adobe, by virtue of its acquisition of Macromedia, is the creator of Flex, a Web application development software used in building many RIAs (you may have also heard of AJAX, which is an alternative development technique).

Our discussion centered on how businesses can use RIAs to create rich content, documents and applications to not only deliver better user experiences but also solve real business problems. For example:

RIAs can improve direct manipulation of product features, giving users immediate updates based on their actions. In the old model, site visitors would click selections (e.g., product attributes or add-ons) and wait for the page to reload with the updates before moving on to the next step in the configuration. RIAs now allow us to present product options in a single screen and make it easier for users to see near-instantaneous updates, often through drag and drop functionality. Harley Davidson's configurator provides a good example of this.

RIAs can improve data visualization by allowing you to aggregate data, customize reports and instantly drill down on information right within the browser. Without them, it is difficult to integrate data from multiple sources into one compelling interface that accommodates drill-down or reformatting without having to go back to the server and wait for an update. Blue Nile's diamond search application provides slide-rule functionality to sort diamonds via price, cut, color, clarity, carat in real time.

RIAs can reduce bandwidth usage and server loads through client side processing. Take, for example, an online mortgage application which may need to validate information like email addresses, format data like dollar amounts, and allow ways to sort and filter data views (such as terms and rates). RIAs eliminate the reliance on the server to do all this processing, allowing the mortgage applicant to get all that feedback immediately.

Most importantly, RIAs can boost ROI by improving the end-user experience through simplified process flow, creating higher conversion rates and improved customer satisfaction.

The key to using RIAs is knowing when to use them: we always advocate using scenario design to uncover the most appropriate use (i.e., thinking about how users engage with information, and then determining the best way to present it). Remember that info-overloaded, time-starved consumers demand utility & simplicity, and clean designs will always prevail. While RIAs can infuse your site experience with a breath of fresh air, it is important to make sure the application is grounded in end user utility and ease of use. Boxes and Arrows has a good article on Usability Heuristics for Rich Internet Applications that was published in 2003 but covers principles that remain true today.

Adobe also has some good information in their RIA Topic Center, including examples, design & development resources, and white papers on the business impact of RIAs.




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