Why mobile paradigms have permanently changed data consumption – The Data Revlolution

30 12 2009

Not long ago the world completely changed, and most people in the world completely missed it.

At first, I was one of those people. As part of my duties at work, I have to be mindful of UX (user experience). One of the most difficult tasks of UX has always been how to present data in intuitive and meaningful ways. Previous to this data revolution, many UX engineers would satisfy themselves with a variable cornucopia of buttons, myriads of menus, and tons of raw power exposed to the most simplistic user. Creating some of the most complex applications and logical mazes known to man.

For an example of this, we can look at the UX engineering disaster known as Office XP. Well, anything before Office 2007 / 2010. When Microsoft decided to re-engineer the interface for Office, they started with some basic research to see what people wanted / needed. They discovered something interesting. 80% (as I remember from a release conference I attended) of the abilities requested were already in the software. There was just the simple problem of no-one understanding how to access the capabilities, or they were too terrified to try. (Some people I know really were terrified they would break something, so they stuck to only the basic tasks they knew.)

To be fair, when Office XP came out, people were ecstatic about its capabilities. It was excellent for its time. But it no longer fits the bill of what is expected as far as terms of usability go. How many people can you find that have gotten used  to the changes of the new office workflow (and it is a drastic change for the better) that will voluntarily go back to the profusion of menus?

So what exactly has changed, and what incited it? I believe it was led in large part by a two-part revolution.

Part 1- The desktop RIA.

Ask any C/C++ developer. Creating desktop applications that are beautiful and easy to use is a nightmare, to put it bluntly. Prior to the introduction of things such as Adobe AIR, or Flex applications, people were left to the same nightmarish user experience with most software platforms. For example, most custom business applications looked like a dos terminal threw-up on the screen. Many user applications were the same blah. Especially if the application was data intensive.

Enter the RIA. RIA’s brought a fundamental perspective change to the concept of a data-intensive application. Especially at the Enterprise level. No longer do complex business needs require applications that take three weeks training to use. The RIA allows for a rich interface on a budget. An interface that is both beautiful (which entices users to actually USE the application) and innovative to use. An excellent example of this is the FedEx Custom Critical tracking demo presented at Adobe Max 2009. All of the information that a FedEx employee would need is directly at their fingertips. Easy access such as this system provides, enhances employee productivity and has an inherent coolness factor. 🙂

Examples such as the FedEx demo are everywhere. Look through the Adobe Air Marketplace. You would be really surprised at how many applications these days are written using technologies such as Adobe Air and Adobe Flex. Go ahead – look through your hard-drive.

Part 2 – The Mobile Revolution

I know all of this probably sounds like it has nothing to do with mobile paradigms. But it has the world to do with it. Can you imagine trying to navigate through a menu that is more than say one or two levels deep? Mobile, due to its limited screen real-estate, memory capacity, and small processing powers have forced developers on making applications significantly more intuitive and automated.

In application development, there is a concept known as N-Tier architectures. The most popular of which is the three-tier architecture. Prior to the mobile revolution this was mainly used only for web applications. An application that utilizes three tiers is an application that is separates three distinct parts of any application from each other using interfaces to link them together. The UI (User Interface) is separated from the Business Logic (the heavy processing), which is separated from the Data, such as a Database Server. This allows all of the heavy processing to be done in a known environment. Somewhere that we know is going to have the processing power to do what is needed by the application. This includes retrieving / storing data. Processing it, etc. The results are then sent back to the application which shows the data to the user. This frees the user from the desktop. It frees businesses from expensive hardware purchases for all of their employees. It enhances hardware planning so that purchases can be controlled while reducing the overall design. It also allows users to have access to everything they need regardless of their location, provided they have an internet connection.

This concept is also frequently referred to as moving “to the cloud.”

To be fair, not all applications that have taken advantage of the new paradigm are better, or even as good as their desktop counter-parts. Nor will they ever be. As with all paradigms, not everything will fit into it. Honestly we’d be stupid to try. Try putting every feature of Photoshop or any other highly complex application into an RIA, or mobile app, and you have a recipe for revolt from your engineers and customers. But subsets of commonly used features are highly appropriate for the paradigm. i.e. look at photoshop.com, or the Photoshop app on the iPhone. Can I go create amazing art from scratch? No. Can I do some pretty neat stuff to the picture I just took on my cell phone? Yes.

So why should you care?

If you write applications, you need to ask yourself how you can make your interfaces more elegant to use. Are they cluttered un-necessarily? Does it require fifteen steps to do a simple task? Your software will appreciate it. Your customers will appreciate you. Your developers may hate you at first, but once they use an application that simplifies things they will revolt when you try to go back.

If you are a customer, you should demand simplicity. Should the average application take three months to learn? Wouldn’t it be better if you could interact directly with your data? The days of complex forms and boring pages of raw data are numbered for many of us. In this enlightened age of technology we should settle for nothing short of excellence. Nothing short of usability. Nothing short of intuitiveness, and ingenuity in design.

It can be done, it is possible, but it takes work, foresight, and effort. And if we don’t do something to change along with these paradigms and concepts we will be left behind. The future is inexorably moving forward. It may not be exactly what we see before us, but it should be better. It must be better, because we must make it better.

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