8 min read

Before we take a more detailed look at the ICEfaces components, we will discuss the desktop character of modern web applications in this article. Desktop technology  is about 40 years old now and there are best practices that can help us in our web application design.

An important part of the user interface design is the page layout. We will have a look at the corresponding design process using a mockup tool. The Facelets example will be extended to show how to implement such a mockup design using Facelets templating. Finally, we will have a look at the production-ready templating of ICEfusion.

Revival of the desktop

The number of desktop-like web applications is growing faster and faster. The demand for this is not a big surprise. Using full-featured desktops meant that users had to suffer from the limited-user model of the first generation Web. This usage gap is now filled by web applications that mimic desktop behavior.

However, there is a difference between the desktop and the Web. Although equipped with desktop-like presentations, web applications have to fulfill different user expectations. So, we have a revival of the desktop metaphor in the Web context but it is mixed with user habits based on the first decade of the Web. Nevertheless, the demand for a purer desktop presentation is already foreseeable.

If you primarily followed the traditional web programming model in the past, namely the request-response pattern, you may first have to shift your mind to components and events. If you already have some desktop-programming experience you will discover a lot of similarities. However, you will also recognize how limited the Web 2.0 programming world is in comparison to modern desktops.

The difference is understandable because desktop design has a long tradition. The first system was built at the end of the 1960s. There is a lot of experience in this domain. Best of all, we have established rules we can follow. Web design is still a challenge compared to desktop design.

Although this article cannot discuss all of the important details of today’s desktop design, we will have a quick look at the basics that are applicable to nearly all user interface designs. We can subsume all this with the following question: What makes a software system user-friendly?

Software ergonomics

Have you ever heard of the ISO standard 9241, Ergonomics of Human System Interaction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_9241)? This standard describes how a system has to be designed to be human-engineered.

There are a lot of aspects in it, from the hardware design for a machine that has to be used by a human to the user interface design of software applications. A poor hardware or interface design can result in not only injury, but also mental distress that leads to wastage of working time. The primary target is to prevent humans from damage.

The most important part of ISO 9241 for software developers is part 110, dialog principles. It considers the design of dialogs between humans and information systems with a focus on:

  • Suitability for the task
  • Suitability for learning
  • Suitability for individualization
  • Conformity with user expectations
  • Self-descriptiveness
  • Controllability
  • Error tolerance

We will take a deeper look at these later.

ISO 9241-110 has its roots in a German industry standard based on research work from the early 1980s. I frst had a look at all this during a study almost 20 years ago. Most interesting with part 110 is the stability of the theoretical model behind it. Independent of the technical advances of the IT industry in the last two decades, we can still apply these standards to modern web application design.

Challenges

The principles of ISO 9241-110 can help you to get better results, but they only serve as a rule. Even if you follow such principles slavishly, the result will not be automatically valuable.

Creating a useful interface is still a challenging business. You have to accept a process of trial and error, ask for customer feedback, and accept a lot of iterations in development before usability becomes your friend.

The technical limitations that derive from your framework decisions can be additionally frustrating. The problems that we have with today’s AJAX technology are a good example of it, especially if you are already experienced with desktop development and its design rules.

Apply Occam’s razor

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Albert Einstein’s quote mentions two important aspects in creative processes that are also true for user interface design:

  • Reduction
  • Oversimplification

Reduction

Have you ever realized how difficult it is to recognize what is important or necessary, and what is superfluous when you enter a new domain? Often, things seem to be clear and pretty simple at the first sight. However, such a perception is based on experiences that were made outside of the domain. There is a lack of essential experiences in a majority of the cases. You may have to invest several years to get the whole picture and develop an accurate understanding before you come to an adequate decision.

If your new domain is user interface design, these findings can help you to understand your customers better. If you keep questioning the eye-catching solutions that come to your mind and try to slip into the customer’s role, you  will get better results faster.

Oversimplification

Oversimplification makes user interfaces more complex to use. This phenomenon arises if the target group for a user interface is defined as less experienced than it is in reality. For advanced users, a beginner’s design is more time-consuming to use.

In many cases, it is assumed that a bigger part of the users consists of beginners. However, reality shows us that advanced users make up the bigger part, whereas beginners and super users may have a portion of up to 10% each.

Designing a user interface for beginners that can be used by all users may be an intuitive idea at first sight, but it is not. You have to consider the advanced users if you want to be successful with your design. This is indeed an essential experience to come to an adequate decision.

User interface design principles

Besides the aforementioned recommendations, the following are the most influential principles for an adequate interface design:

  • Suitability for the task
  • Self-descriptiveness
  • Controllability
  • Conformity with user expectations
  • Error tolerance
  • Suitability for individualization
  • Suitability for learning

    Suitability for the task

    Although it seems to be a trivial requirement, the functionality of a web application seldom delivers what the user requires to fulfill his needs. Additionally, the presentation, navigation, or lingo often does not work for the user or is not well-suited for the function it represents.

    A good user interface design is based on the customer’s lingo. You can write a glossary that describes the meaning of terms you use. A requirements management that results in a detailed use case model can help in implementing the adequate functionality. The iterative development of interactive user interface prototypes to get customer feedback allows finding a suitable presentation and navigation.

    Self-Descriptiveness

    Ergonomic applications have an interface design that allows answering the following questions at any time:

  • What is the context I am working in at the moment?
  • What is the next possible step?

The answers to these questions become immediately important when a user is, for example, disrupted by a telephone call and continues his work after attending to it. The shorter the time to recognize the last working step, the better the design is.

A rule of thumb is to have a caption for every web page that describes its context. Navigational elements, such as buttons, show descriptive text that allows recognizing the function behind it. If possible, separate a page into subsections that also have their captions for a better orientation.

Controllability

Applications have to offer their functionality in a way that the user can decide for himself when and how the application is fulfilling his requirements. For this, it is important that the application offers different ways to start a function. Beginners may prefer using the mouse to select an entry in a pull-down menu. Advanced users normally work with the keyboard because hotkeys let them use the application faster.

It is also important that the user must be able to stop his/her work at any time; for example, for a lunch break or telephone call, without any disadvantages. It is not acceptable that the user has to start the last function again. With web application, this cannot be fulfilled in any case because of security reasons or limited server resources.

Conformity with User Expectations

User expectations are, maybe, the most important principle, but also the most sophisticated one. The expectations are closely connected to the cultural background of the target group. So, the interface designer has to have a similar socialization.

We need to have a look at the use of words of the target language. Although target groups share the same language, certain terms can have different meanings; for example, the correct use of colors or pictures in icon bars is pretty important because we use these in contexts without extra explanation. However, there are cases when a color or an image can mean the opposite of what it was designed for.

The behavior of an application can also be a problem when it differs from the standards of real-world processes. The advantage of standardization is an immediate understanding of processing steps, or the correct use of tools without education. If an application does not consider this and varies, the standard users have to rethink every step before they can fulfill their duties. This needs extra energy, is annoying, and is pretty bad for the acceptance of the application in the long run.

If we look at the design itself, consistency in presentation, navigation, or form use is another important part. The user expects immutable behavior of the application in similar contexts. Contexts should be learned only once, and the learned ones are reusable in all other occurrences. Following this concept also helps to reuse the visual components during development. So, you have a single implementation for each context that is reused in different web pages.


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