Conference Review: UIE Web App Summit 2007: Part I
Published: March 6, 2007
With this review, UXmatters is introducing a new format for conference reviews.—The Editor in Chief
Jared Spool’s User Interface Engineering (UIE) thought the time had come for a UX conference focusing on Web applications and thus produced the first UIE Web App Summit. This conference definitely filled what formerly was an unmet need. The UIE Web App Summit took place at the Monterey Marriott, in Monterey, California, U.S.A., on January 21st through 23rd, 2007. It drew a capacity crowd of 218 people, who had traveled from far and wide to attend the event. While most attendees came from the United States and Canada, nine came from the UK and Europe and four hailed from Oceania and Asia.
Like other conferences not sponsored by professional associations, the UIE Web App Summit was a fairly pricey event—$1999 for advance registration for all three days—so I was interested in finding out whether attendees felt they got value for their money. Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about their conference experience and felt that the content was valuable to them.
This was an excellent conference! The best I’ve attended in the last three years since starting to write conference reviews for UXmatters. And its content focused on a topic that’s highly relevant to the work of the majority of UX professionals today: Web applications.
With the User Interface (UI) 11 Conference already behind it, UIE has had considerable experience organizing conferences, and it shows. In producing the UIE Web App Summit, the organizers brought us a great conference experience. UIE planned the conference with great attention to every detail.
Day 1: Tutorials
The first day of this 3-day event comprised full-day tutorials on quite diverse aspects of Web application user experience:
- Deconstructing Web Applications—Hagan Rivers
- Designing Web Applications Using RIAs and Ajax—David Malouf and Bill Scott
- Usage-Centered Application Design—Larry Constantine
- Measure Twice, Cut Once: Product Strategy and Planning Tools for Web Applications—Peter Merholz and Brandon Schauer
People registered in advance for the tutorial of their choice, and according to demand, the tutorials were held in meeting rooms that were configured to accommodate the registered attendees.
Day 2: Web App Foundations
The second day opened with Jared Spool’s keynote address. Throughout the remainder of the day, two sessions ran at a time, each having a duration of an hour and a quarter. This day’s sessions gave attendees a good grounding in the basics of Web application design, showing them the state of the art for today’s Web applications, and included some unique approaches to Web application design that I’m sure encouraged designers to think outside the box.
Day 3: The Latest Perspectives in Web Apps
Day 3 featured talks by designers of some very successful Web applications, as well as sessions on specific categories of Web applications. Again, two sessions ran concurrently throughout the day.
Content and Presenters: Highlights
At the UIE Web App Summit, there were many superb speakers with something interesting to say, and the conference covered a great diversity of topics pertaining to Web application design. What more could one want?
The organizers did a good job of programming the conference sessions. So, in most cases, I was able to follow my interests to decide which session to attend, without feeling terribly conflicted about missing a parallel session. In a few cases, I chose sessions because I wanted to hear certain speakers I hadn’t heard before.
Presenter: Hagan Rivers
I spent most of the day in Hagan Rivers’s tutorial, “Deconstructing Web Applications.” I decided to check out this tutorial, because I’d heard Hagan is a great speaker, and she was the only presenter giving a tutorial I hadn’t heard speak before. Hagan Rivers (Figure 1) has a very engaging style and encourages dialogue with her audience. I enjoyed her talk a lot—as well as the comments of designers in the audience.
Figure 1—Hagan Rivers
Hagan deconstructed a wealth of Web application design solutions—in all, about 600 screen shots—analyzing the pros and cons of each design approach for
- data entry
- lists and list management
- filtering and searching
- visual design
Hagan has coined the terms interview and hub to describe “two basic forms of application structure designers use repeatedly.” In The Designer’s Guide to Web Applications | Part I: Structure and Flows, she said, “The most common structure is a hub. … In a Web application, a hub is a center of activity—a place from where all activities radiate, like spokes. … The hub allows us to group functionality into a logical structure.” A list in which a user can select an item and perform various actions on it is a good example of a hub. About interviews, Hagan wrote, “The interview follows a step-by-step workflow, collecting information a little bit at a time from the user.” E-commerce purchasing process funnels and wizards are examples of interviews.
Hagan’s discussion of common forms of navigation covered links, bread crumbs, tabs, menus, tab menus, trees, and windows in depth. As the slide in Figure 2 shows, tabs are a versatile device, but “God Help you if you use tabs where it’s going to grow to 25 tabs,” she warned. In addition to using too many tabs, other issues with tabs include using more than two levels of tabs and the need for care in designing content spokes.
Figure 2—The versatility of tabs
About menus, Hagan said, “This is a very robust widget.” As Figure 3 shows, menus have many virtues, but present problems as well, including scalability and “serious accessibility issues.” “We’re not robots. We lose menus when we move our mouse,” Hagan declared. Menus hide commands. “Hierarchical menus are tricky. Most of the time, they’re not necessary.” Good labeling is essential. “Ambiguous verb/nouns can trip people up a lot.”
Figure 3—Virtues of menus
Tab menus like those on Amazon.com® and Netflix® “are a new navigation concept that is worth watching,” Hagan said. “I like tab menus a lot.” When discussing tab menus, she told us, “Hover really annoys me. Menus popping open when people move their mouse to read. Boxes appearing and disappearing. I don’t like it.”
“I try to make people forget they’re in a browser. What does the user want to get done here? If you design navigation well, users start to forget they’re in a browser,” said Hagan. Finally, she discussed the pros and cons of displaying a separate browser window versus a pop-up with a browser window, as shown in Figures 4 and 5. “Sometimes when we try to save users steps, we confuse the hell out of them,” she said. “For the most part, users don’t care what our navigation system is. They just care about getting where they want to go. What they really care about is the stage”—the workspace or content area. “The stage and the navigation are always in competition for screen real estate.”
Figure 4—Issues with separate pop-up windows
Figure 5—Benefits of displaying pop-ups within the same browser window
In discussing data entry, Hagan told us, “Users don’t necessarily mind density of information, if it’s something they understand. … When doing design for data entry, try to set up users for success. … Keep users moving forward. A sense of forward momentum keeps users involved.” However, about auto-advance in text fields—such as for parts of phone numbers—she said, “I’ve seen this blow up really bad. It can really cause problems for users.” She provided this useful guideline: “For data that’s hard to validate like dates, use a drop-down calendar. For data that’s easy to validate, use text boxes.” Hagan suggested that we “clump keyboard and mousing tasks together as much as possible” to minimize the need for a user to move back and forth between the keyboard and mouse. Figure 6 summarizes Hagan’s goals for data entry design.
Figure 6—How to make data entry easier
Hagan told us, “If you can nail list management in your app, you’ve gone a long way toward usability.” After showing us examples of filtering and sorting, she provided guidelines for paging controls, which are “unique to Web app design,” shown in Figure 7. “A lot of times the goal is to get data down to a manageable set, … but there are serious problems with paging. For example, what does Select All mean? All or all on this page? Are selections retained across pages?” If so, to deselect an item, “you’ve got to remember what page it was on.” In conclusion, Hagan said, “When an engineer says we have to have paging, I’m just dismayed, because I don’t have answers for all of this yet. Minimize the need for paging. Load all the data on the client side and manipulate it there. Don’t put paging in because everybody’s doing it.”
Figure 7—Guidelines for paging controls
Through usability testing, Hagan has found that there is no correlation between the actual download speeds of Web sites and users’ perceptions of their speeds. However, there is “a strong correlation between perceived download time and whether users successfully completed their tasks on a site. There was, however, no correlation between actual download time and task success…. It seems that, when people accomplish what they set out to do on a site, they perceive that site to be fast.” Therefore, she concludes that displaying more information on a page is better “if it helps users to get through data faster.” She suggests that we help users to wait for information to appear by displaying a progress bar while filling in data and said, “I question the assumption that waiting is bad.”
Hagan referred to the repetition of sets of icons beside each item in a list as the “Christmas-tree effect.” She was also concerned about the possible ambiguity of the meaning of such icons. “Mixing status with action makes it hard to tell what’s clickable and what’s not.”
Introducing the topic “Searching & Filtering,” Hagan defined her terms and presented our options:
- Searching applies to free-form text.
- Filtering includes or excludes information based on some characteristic.
- You can support
- only searching
- only filtering
- filtering when initiating a search
- filtering of search results
- a combination of the above
According to UIE research, “Using an on-site search engine actually reduced the [users’] chances of success, and the difference was significant. Overall, users found the correct answer in 42% of the tests…. When they used an on-site search engine, their success rate was only 30%. In tasks where they used only links…, users succeeded 53% of the time.” “Users are bad at forming search queries,” said Hagan. “You’ve got to put in a lot of effort on the engineering side.” For example, “when people get zero results, they think, ‘They don’t have it.’” eBay® has a better solution. “They expanded my search for me," said Hagan. “An automated system on the back end looks at searches that are too specific and broadens them.” About filtering first, Hagan said, “Narrowing the scope before searching increases the chances of zero results. … Just because you have filtering controls, doesn’t mean your app is more usable.” Hagan showed some very effective examples of progressive filters on Identifont and dynamic filtering on Fidelity.com.
After showing us many examples of both poor and good visual design, Hagan said, “In many cases, if you do nothing more than make an app look better, you can make it more usable. Visual design has an enormous impact on usability.” She made an important point about form usability: “People click a field, then wonder what to type. If its label is in the box, once the user types any text, the label is gone.”
Dashboards were Hagan’s final topic of the day. Figure 8 gives some of her guidelines for dashboard design. Hagan told us dashboard designers are “trying to create one place that lets users get to all key points in an application. It’s common to see dashboards that are useful to only a small number of users.” Understanding users’ tasks is the key to successful dashboard design.
Figure 8—Guidelines for dashboards
Day 2: Summit Keynote: Moving Towards Delight: Following the Rapid Evolution of Web-Based Applications
Presenter: Jared Spool
Jared Spool of UIE (Figure 9) opened the conference with his usual flair. In telling us about the food that would be served during the conference for our enjoyment, he quipped, “At UIE, we’re a menu-driven organization.” He always brings a smile to my face.
Figure 9—Jared Spool giving the keynote address
During his excellent keynote address, Jared shared his observations on the things companies are doing to improve their Web applications’ customer experience
- extending customer service with things like
- in-store pickup of purchases
- efficient handling of returns and shipping
- online airline check-in—“This is pure magic as far as I’m concerned,” said Jared.
- online purchase of movie tickets
- enhancing the customer experience with social networking features like
- reviews on Amazon.com
- classified ads on craigslist—“All it does is post messages, but this application has changed the way people view classifieds,” said Jared.
- sharing videos on YouTube
- sharing photos on Flickr™
- socializing on MySpace® and dating sites
- enhancing users’s creativity with services such as
- Google™ Docs—word processing online
- Lulu™—publishing and selling everything from books to brochures to DVDs online
- Design Outpost—contests for graphic design projects with payment held in escrow
- creating immersive customer experiences
- Google Maps and Google Earth
- Twitter—Whose tagline is: “A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?”
Jared is a consummate storyteller. He told us the delightful tale of an elderly gentleman who was a dealer in oriental rugs and a subject in a field study that UIE did at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. This man told Jared that he doesn’t use a computer. He didn’t know how to use a mouse, so Jared offered to drive the computer for him. Then, the man said, “Can we go to eBay?” “Sure,” said Jared. So the man said, “Okay. Type in oriental rugs. Okay. Scroll down about halfway. Okay. Click that one.” The bid hadn’t gone off yet. Jared said, “I thought you said you didn’t use computers.” “I don’t,” the man replied. “My brother does it for me, and I sit next to him and tell him what I want to do.”
Speaking about “what it means to design a user experience that really dazzles people,” Jared used the GTD® (Getting Things Done®) metaphor of the “Runway View,” “10,000 ft View,” and “30,000 ft View” to show how the focus of design has evolved from technology to features to experience (Figure 10). “At the technology stage—the talking horse stage—just having the functionality is all that matters. People are willing to use software that’s hard to use and buy support tools to help them use it. Because it’s the only way users can do something, people will use it,” said Jared. Then, features extend the service, and “finally, we look at the experience we want people to have. There comes a point at which you’ve got to focus on the experience. Bad data negatively impacts the experience.”
Figure 10—The evolution of design focus
For example, “A lot of people—about a third of the people on the Internet—change their email addresses each year. People have multiple email addresses, so couldn’t remember which one they’d used to sign in. People weren’t completing purchases,” according to Jared. So some sites allowed guest checkout for completing purchases and experienced “a 24% jump in revenues.”
Airlines’ cryptic policies for changing flight reservations negatively affect the customer experience. “Lawyers are doing things that affect the experience of our users. Who said they could?” asked Jared. “Southwest Airlines innovated using English [for theirs].”
There is a “continuum of usability” from frustration to delight. “Every frustration degrades the experience. It is a death of a thousand cuts phenomenon,” said Jared. “Delight enhances experience.” It’s much harder.
At the experience stage, we’ll see more interactive Web applications like the online video-editing suite for a Dove® contest Jared showed us—“a Web-based application built for a one-month promotion.”
What does Jared think the future holds for Web applications? (Figure 11) “Where I think the future of Web apps is going: much more interactive technologies. Flash, Flex, Ajax, and Apollo" rather than Microsoft® Windows®. We’ll be able to “use Web applications offline. … Moving away from the browser. Merging what’s on the client and the Web server. Entire business models based on Web-based applications.”
Figure 11—The future of Web applications
“The Web-based application has to work perfectly, because it’s the entire experience for the user,” concluded Jared.
Finally, Jared introduced all of the conference’s speakers and the topics of their presentations and got everyone excited about what was to come. This sort of introduction to a conference’s content is really helpful at the beginning of a conference, because with so much else going on, it’s hard to find the time to dig into the proceedings to decide which sessions to attend.
Photographs by Ron Yoder, for User Interface Engineering, and Pabini Gabriel-Petit.