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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Standardization of Web Experience

7:13 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Pretty much all mature industries and product-segments have standard user interfaces across different products. This is so not because the industry guys are lazy (although that might be a factor for some) but because standard interfaces make products more intuitive and users' lives easier. Automobile industry is a great example of standardization. All cars have a steering wheel, brakes, gears, accelerator, clutch, etc. If you know how to drive one car, you can pretty much drive any other passenger car in the world. Not much has changed inside (or outside for that matter) a car for decades, except may be the digital systems. However, car makers still find ways to differentiate their brands through design, quality, performance, positioning and price. Computers are another example of standard user interface. The QWERTY keyboard and standard functionality buttons enable users to get going with any PC right away. Software obviously has a big role to play in that, and we all owe a big 'Thank You' to Microsoft for its role in standardizing few key features across all software applications. 

There is a trend you can find out in pretty much any industry or successful product-segment. At first, you will see a plethora of players with their own products specifications, trying to establish themselves as industry standard. This leads to few, if not many, different products with different interfaces, leading to user dissatisfaction. And then eventually we see all products in that segment converging towards commonly agreed or understood standards. Standardization of the user interface (and thus standardization of certain aspects of user experience) takes time, but it does take place when the industry reaches a certain level of maturity. The web is at the cusp of similar user experience standardization. 

Factors For Standardization 
It is not that the web experience does not have any standardized aspects already. Though the standardization of web experience had started long time ago with elements such as banners, menus, buttons and other widgets (along with some carry over from desktop applications' functionality), this time it is different. And there are four primary factors making it different. 
  • First, earlier the standardization was led from a technology perspective, whereas now design and user experience are taking a centre stage in application development and driving the user interface changes. This makes a world of difference as web applications are made more intuitive, beautiful and are centered around human interaction. 
  • Second, with millions of users using web applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google, pretty much whatever features these applications use become a hit/standard requirement/feature for other applications as well, as the users start to expect similar behavior from other applications as well. For example, users now expect real-time updates without having to reload the whole page overtime. Pinterest is another great example of this trend. Its homepage and pin-board feature have inspired [and in some cases, literally copied by] many other applications across the web. 
  • Third, the whole web 2.0 revolution has led to two-way interaction between humans and web applications, where users actively are contributing to the content creation and curation process. This is very different from earlier (web 1.0) days where users of web applications were primarily passive consumers of content. This is a major factor, not so much from a technology perspective, but from a consumer adoption perspective.
  • And fourth, advancements in client side technologies (browsers and apps) have enabled web applications to provide rich user experience that can rival one provided by any desktop application. 

Tools For Standardization 
The software industry realizes the need for standardization of web experience and has been moving in that direction with open standards such as HTML5 and CSS3. Web software frameworks (such as Twitter Bootstrap and jQuery UI) that standardize cross-browser experience are a hit amongst developers and are now commonly used in many web applications. Twitter Bootstrap in particular is a very interesting framework in that it is not only easy to use and promotes rapid development, but also standardizes the common UI aspects of modern web applications. No wonder it is one of the most popular projects on Github

It Is Inevitable
Developers and vendors realize that while differentiation can be good strategy in many cases it is better to follow the standard conventions. Having said that I am not suggesting that we adopt complete standardization either. That will be too boring, and actually almost impossible to achieve on the web. But standardization to an extent is bound to happen. The four factors mentioned above are going to force us into making applications that are not only richer in experience but also similar in many aspects of application behavior and UI.

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