Thoughts on RIA and user experience

Last December I presented the Flash Platform to a group of students. And much to my surprise they didn’t know what RIA is or what the common challenges are when developing web applications.

After the event, I spent some time thinking of a better way to explain RIA to people. I came up with this: imagine you are in a restaurant in a foreign country and you want to order something to eat. You get the menu and you see the first dish like this:

Dish #1
Water 150 ml, salt 2 gr, sugar 2 gr, 1 onion, 6 tomatoes, 1 red pepper, 1 spoon of olive oil, 1 spoon of vinegar

I bet you’d have a very hard time “understanding” this dish. But what’s the problem? You have all the ingredients, it’s plain English, so it should be easy. Or not?

Now imagine the same restaurant, with the same food, but this time the menu looks like this:

Gazpacho Soup
Ingredients: Tomatoes, Onion, Red Pepper, Olive Oil, Vinegar, Salt

Now we are getting somewhere! You know it is a soup. But still, you may have problems making up your mind, especially if it is your first time eating gazpacho. Maybe you could find additional info by asking the waiter.

Let’s see a third menu. The soup is listed like this:

Gazpacho (traditional Spanish tomato soup) – served cold
Ingredients: Tomatoes, Onion, Red Pepper, Olive Oil, Vinegar, Salt
Note: You can see this dish below or have a taste at the bar.

I think this time the menu is pretty much perfect. You know what it looks like, you know it is served cold, you can see the ingredients and you can even taste the dish before ordering.

Now, if I go back to my initial challenge, explaining what RIA is to newbie, I’d say that from all the web apps out there, RIA apps are the closest to the last menu.

I think this is happening a lot. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, it helps to design the UI and workflows from the point of a view of a chef. Of course a chef would know pretty well what a dish looks like even just by looking at the ingredients. But most people  are not chefs. More likely we are like a tourist in a foreign country trying to figure out what the meal looks like. And making people ask a “waiter” to find their way around is simply a bad practice. They will run to another restaurant/country and stop buying your poorly presented food even if you have top quality ingredients.

We have come a long way from the beginning of the IT era. The hardware is amazing, the software is more powerful than ever. But still, when I look at applications around me I am surprised when I find myself thinking “Is this the best we can do?” I suspect that the constraints of the smartphone platforms coupled with the increasing demand for applications for them will lead us to better user experiences, especially for simple applications. And this experience will be “ported” back to desktop/web applications.

What does your perfect menu look like?

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on RIA and user experience

  1. Hi Miahl, long time no talk.. :)

    To drive your analogy a bit more, I think more appreciated approach would be to have the ingredients spread over several pages on the menu so the user/guest has to figure out what belongs together.

    Or have to repeat everything he had for dinner to the waitress when he wants to pay for the meal at the end.

    However, the restaurant example does a pretty good job explaining it.

    Cheers, Thomas

  2. Hey Thomas! Indeed lot of time has passed since Mainz event :)

    I think what you described would be great like an eternal punishment for those building non-usable apps :D

  3. Hi Mihai,

    Very interesting analogy. Never thought of Web Applications as a gourmet menu, but you its definitely a good to explain the concept.

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