Inductive vs rich user interface design

Boxes and Arrows article by David Heller: “Ultimately, I don’t see a long term future for HTML as an application development solution.”

Meanwhile, there has been a steady integration of HTML interface behavior into traditional applications. Two years ago, Microsoft published a document titled “Inductive User Interface Guidelines” that made this case in a strong way. It was a result of lessons learned from years of building web applications.

The idea is simple. Despite the lack of mature interface components for web based apps, people understand hyperlinks. (Remember Steve from last month’s Macworld keynote: People only use what they understand.)

Of course it’s more than just hyperlinks – it’s about taking the tasks that you need to do right now out from their hidden places in the menu bar and displaying them in context. No more digging, and it’s text instead of obscure toolbar icons.

But I wonder if something else is going on here. In the studies that Microsoft cites, there is an increased success in solving tasks, but the long-term usability is not measured. I’m talking about the satisfaction that comes from using a well designed piece of software every day. The web style is easy to understand, but it is also heavy on the clicks (repetitive and modal).

Furthermore, the idea can easily be taken too far, and in doing so it jeopardize the consistency of the rest of the interface. Take the Visual Studio .NET installer, which I recently had the pleasure of using. (I’m sure this is true for other Microsoft product installers as well.) It uses HTML-like links for things that buttons are perfectly good for, such as “Continue” on the bottom of a wizard screen.

Jeffrey Veen on links:

"I've often referred to the links in Web pages as windows -- little glimpses out to other destinations. And, as users scan a page while hunting for their next click, they use these windows to make their decisions. The more context you can offer them, I've often said, the more effective their browsing will be."

Contrast this with David Heller’s article promising the end of HTML. As the Veen quote suggests, HTML can be effective and powerful when used properly. Throwing out accepted web interface conventions in favor of Flash front-ends would leave a mess of “fancy” but otherwise non-standard and unusable interfaces until new best practices could evolve. Likewise, merging HTML-like interfaces into traditional applications probably only makes sense for a minority of applications.

Manton Reece @manton