Section 1.1. Ajax and the Usable Web

1.1. Ajax and the Usable Web

No longer are you forced to wait five seconds a web page to reload every time you click on something. Ajax applications change in real-time. They let you drag boxes around instead of clicking on arrows and typing in numbers. They keep page content fresh instead of forcing you to keep hitting Refresh. They show meaningful animations instead of verbose messages.

At the heart of all this is a growing emphasis on web usability.[*] Perhaps you've heard the story of the dancing beareveryone's impressed with it even though its skills quite frankly wouldn't get the bear into a dance academy;[*] it makes an impression because it can dance and not because of how well it well dances. The Web felt like that at first. Suddenly you could read news from the other side of the world, find hints on some obscure game, purchase a rare book. All valuable activities, regardless of how easy or difficult to perform them. Usability? We don't need no stinkin' usability!

[*] See Thomas Baekdal's "The Usability Revolution is OverWe Won!" (

[*] The dancing bear story is used throughout The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Cooper, 1999), a book decrying the obsession with everything that's "cool" at the expensive of true usability.

Here's what happened: people discovered that any coder and his dog can build the basic functionality (and you don't always need the coder); amid the rush of B2B companies hyping multimillion dollar auction systems, I recall one CTO bragging that his summer students created the same thing for a few thousand bucks. So if companies in a saturated market can't compete on raw functionality, what can they compete on? The things that matter to users. Most of the companies that have survived and prosperedcompanies like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo!avoided feature bloat and promoted simple, though not dumbed-down, interfaces. It's no coincidence that each of these companies have been busy incorporating Ajax features to that end. Each of these monster dotcoms not only uses Ajax, but has actually pioneered some of the concepts described in this book. You can throw Microsoft into that list as well.

In addition, a whole new generation of companies has risen on the strength of their simple, intuitive applications. 37signals has a suite of tightly focused applications used daily by a passionate user base. With an innovative photo-sharing interface, Flickr built a community of 1 million photo-sharing users in around 18 months.[] Another recent entrant is Odeo, a podcast manager that works as an easy-to-use web application rather than running in the desktop like most of the competition. Like their giant counterparts, these newcomers are big proponents of Ajax and have helped define the concepts behind many of the Ajax Patterns featured in this book.

] The Flickr estimate is based on a projection from a June 2005 article ( that cites the user base as 775,000 and growing at 30 percent per month, leading to over a million users in June or July. The company launched in February 2004 ( and was soon acquired by Yahoo!.

And then there are all the systems you and I will never see firsthand: the scores of web applications sitting on closed intranets. Like the dotcoms, there remain plenty of dancing bears in this category too. Companies welcomed internal web apps, but mostly for technical reasons, such as easy deployment, monitoring, and remote accessand also because it seemed like the "cool" thing to do. Usability was rarely the driving factor. Just ask a user who's wondering where her keyboard shortcuts have gone in the "new, improved" web interface. I recall one web migration that increased an average customer transaction from 20 seconds to 2 minutes! One reaction has been to throw in the towel and retreat back to the desktop. But many companies have chosen to persist with the Web, accepting the idionsyncracies and using whatever workarounds are necessary to get the benefits of a web platform without the usual problems. It's this spirit that has led to Ajax features evolving in the enterprise, and the popularity of Ajax continues to fuel progress. While many usages will remain hidden, one open example we do have is work performed internally at the Sabre travel company, which led to the open source OpenRico library (

Finally, Web Apps Give Something Back

An all-too-common phenomenon in the past few years is taking a reasonable desktop application and spending lots of time and money "upgrading" it into a hopelessly unusable web application. In his podcast, software consultant Craig Shoemaker recalls one such experience (

Ajax is about giving back to the user what they might have had taken away from them when their application got turned into a web app in the first place. I did some consulting for a company that had an old Powerbuilder application, and they had all kind of services for the users. They had things like multi-column dropdown lists and all this user interaction from the user-interface.

What did they do? They created their application as a web app and the users hated it. A lot of the services and the interaction that they were used to were taken away because of the statelessness and the way a web application is architected. With Ajax, we can give some of that back.

In summary, Ajax aims to keep the benefits of the Web, but without sacrificing usability. Most users are now comfortable working inside the browsermeaning that, for some applications, we actually get the best of both worlds: better usability and better infrastructure.

Ajax Design Patterns
Ajax Design Patterns
ISBN: 0596101805
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 169

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