Conference Report: The Web and Beyond

October 23, 2006

In the beautiful surroundings of the Pathé Tuschinski Theatre in Amsterdam, the Dutch chapter of SIGCHI—, now rebranded as—on June 8th, 2006, held its 10th annual conference, which was entitled The Web and Beyond, as shown in Figure 1. The conference focused on the challenges and opportunities Web 2.0 presents to the field of user experience design.

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Figure 1—The Web and Beyond
The Web and Beyond

The conference was a great success and engendered much excitement and enthusiasm among its 625 attendees, representing the business, marketing, Web design, and HCI communities—most from The Netherlands. After several years of economic decline and many company reorganizations in The Netherlands, people thought the event marked a kind of turning point for the UX community.

Although the audience at this conference mostly comprised locals, two of the three keynote speakers were from the United States: Jesse James Garrett, of Adaptive Path, and Jared Spool, of User Interface Engineering. The third keynote speaker, Steven Pemberton, though originally from England, now lives and works in Amsterdam. Another American, Bill Scott, of Yahoo!®, presented the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library. Jeroen van Erp, of, chaired the conference.

Between the keynote addresses, there were several parallel sessions. Most sessions were in Dutch and addressed the conference theme of Web 2.0 within the Dutch context. Speakers addressed themes like technology, users, business/marketing, design, and society.

Keynote Address: The Brave New World: Usability Challenges of Web 2.0

Speaker: Jared Spool

In his characteristically humorous and entertaining way, Jared Spool spoke about the usability challenges of Web 2.0 applications.

According to Jared, shown in Figure 2, many RIAs (Rich Internet Applications) suffer greatly from usability issues, but “we do not know how to design for this!” he said. For example, lots of people still have a hard time understanding the concept and usage of RSS feeds. And what about the usability of APIs? Ultimately, the user experience determines the success of Web 2.0 applications, not the technologies themselves.

Figure 2—Jared Spool and the Brave New World
Jared Spool and the Brave New World

Experience design has now become a boardroom conversation, but is the community ready to deliver? Jared posed this rhetorical question regarding whether the design community is ready to participate at the C-level management table.

Jared talked about the success of the iPod®—which results from its compelling user experience and integration with iTunes® and the iTunes Music/Movie Store—versus the lack of success for the feature-rich SanDisk®. Competitors of the iPod need to match its user experience. In the same way, Blockbuster™ needs to match the user experience of NetFlix™, where people talk about movies, not about its great Web 2.0 features.

The most successful Web 2.0 companies such as Flickr™ and YouTube™ are now completely about user experience. With features like RSS feeds, APIs, and folksonomies, Web 2.0 companies can deliver compelling user experiences. Most Web 2.0 applications have fewer features than earlier Web applications, but the features they have are very powerful. For example, Flickr started as a chat room for games, but morphed into a photo-sharing site. Jared was critical of the usability of folksonomies. Tags can have multiple meanings and are often very idiosyncratic.

According to Jared, the problem with Web 2.0 today is that it is still very much the arena of programmers, whereas it should also be the arena of UX designers, because we’re designing for user experience, not for features or technology. Currently, not much attention is paid to the usability of user interfaces for Web 2.0 applications.

During the Q&A session, Jared discussed the future of personal tags. With some future controlling mechanisms, these “tag sets will morph into something more useful than they currently are,” said Spool.

Keynote Address: The Frontiers of User Experience

Speaker: Jesse James Garrett

Jesse James Garrett’s talk focused on three key areas of user experience as practiced within Adaptive Path: field research, information architecture, and interaction design.

Jesse spoke about trends in user research at Adaptive Path. The limits of conventional usability testing in the lab have become apparent. An important trend is the increasing awareness of the value of field research and ethnography. Adaptive Path does three kinds of user research. They do research in usability testing labs, conduct phone interviews, as shown in Figure 3, and go into the field to observe and interview users in their natural habitats at work, at home, or at play. Jesse showed us how Adaptive Path researchers take pictures in the field, then make a kind of documentary of product usage. His advice is, “Show the context, do not tell it!”

Figure 3—Jesse James Garrett, comparing the costs of different types of research
Jesse James Garrett

Regarding information architecture, Adaptive Path addresses issues such as user-defined keywords in metadata. Tags and folksonomies are difficult, because of misspellings and the problem of knowing which tags people are using for what meaning and content. A conventional method for information architecture is card sorting, but now tagging and folksonomies are gaining popularity. Tagging is tantamount to outsourcing the information architecture to users. With folksonomies, the information architect does not have to choose the metadata. These bottom-up structuring principles do not come for free. Phenomena like tag spams and tag bombing are occurring as people game the system.

Interaction design activities now relate directly to Ajax. Within the Ajax paradigm, it is no longer necessary to wait for page refreshes. A new application model has emerged, having as its basis technologies like XHTML/CSS and the Document Object Model (DOM). Two applications from Google™—Gmail and Maps—have put Ajax on the map. Two kinds of revolutions are taking place:

  • Ajax is a paradigm shift for both designers and developers.  Ajax makes design problems technology problems and vice versa.
  • Ajax demands closer collaboration, both within teams and across communities.

During the Q&A session, Jesse addressed the issue of search-engine findability in Ajax implementations. In general, we must see Ajax applications more as pragmatic solutions rather than perfect solutions.

Panel Discussion: The Next Generation of User Interface Patterns

Panelists: Bill Scott and Martijn van Welie

Peter Boersma introduced panelists Bill Scott, Ajax evangelist and curator of the Yahoo!® Design Pattern Library, and Martijn van Welie, Senior Interaction Designer at Satama Amsterdam and curator of interaction design patterns. The topic of discussion was design patterns for Web 2.0 applications. Both panelists talked about the advantages of thinking in terms of design patterns.

Shown in Figure 4, Bill elaborated on the content of the design pattern libraries at Yahoo! and demonstrated a set of implementations. Although the current design patterns for Web 2.0 are nothing special—because their interaction models have long been present in graphic user interfaces for desktop applications—Bill concluded that the new context of the Web makes these patterns more significant. “It is an old idiom in a new space,” he said.

Figure 4—Bill Scott
Bill Scott

The Yahoo! Design Pattern Library has raised the awareness of patterns in the design community. The Library focuses on the language and grammar of design. Yahoo! shares its vocabulary of design, related code, and its approach to design thinking. The value of these patterns is educational as well and stimulates discussion among designers and developers Bill is also a proponent of open source design patterns and support for pattern reuse through APIs.

Martijn replied to critics who think design patterns stifle their creativity. According to him, “Patterns provide solutions for eighty percent of all design problems, freeing designers to spend their energy on the twenty percent of design problems that patterns do not address.”

Martijn outlined some of the challenges for the design pattern community, as follows:

  • combining their individual efforts into something large
  • reworking existing design patterns
  • documenting patterns beyond the obvious
  • dealing with the many implementation issues of XHTML, Flash, XAML, etcetera

Keynote Address: Web 4.0: Now’s the Time to Plan

Speaker: Steven Pemberton

In an engaging presentation, Steven Pemberton stated that all the buzz about Web 2.0 is really nothing special. The term Web 2.0 just forges a connection between people’s thoughts and words. Its technological ingredients have been around for many years. We are building Web 2.0 applications on facilities that standards groups designed into the Web starting in 1995. What is remarkable is that Ajax came out of the user experience design community.

Shown in Figure 5, Steven stated that the Web community should take a more declarative approach to design. Implementation would then require less coding. With this approach, specifications are independent of user agents, require less code, and are easier to reuse. A Model-View-Controller (MVC) approach separates the general from the particular. The separation of structure from content also needs to happen. In the end, the browser will disappear. Although many ingredients of Web 2.0. are not really new, for user experience designers, its technologies are very challenging. The design of user experiences for Web 2.0 applications is just beginning to unfold.

Figure 5—Steven Pemberton’s Web concepts
Steven Pemberton's Web concepts

The MVC is an old model for object-oriented software architecture, and with the separation between structure, content, and presentation, this model is revitalized in a new way.

Panel Discussion: The Web and Beyond

Moderator: Jeroen van Erp

Panelists: Justien Marseille, Steven Pemberton, and Jared Spool

Program chair Jeroen van Erp led the keynote speakers in the final panel discussion of the day. The panel, shown in Figure 6, consisted of Steven Pemberton, Jared Spool, and Justien Marseille, who stood in for Jesse James Garrett. Steven and Jared dominated most of the discussion.

Figure 6—Panel of keynote speakers
Panel of keynote speakers

Jared stated that the reason people visit a Web site is because it provides a good user experience—the characteristics of which include good, up-to-date content; high usability; and high performance. Sites exist because they offer content about some specific topic or let users achieve a specific purpose. They are not about presenting a great user interface. In the end, their user interfaces will become invisible. Designers must listen to users—to what they actually say—instead of trying to catch them with a sticky user interface. About the so-called Semantic Web Initiative, Jared stated that, as an historian, he wanted proof of its existence. Only when people can show him the Semantic Web will he have an opinion about it. According to Jared Spool, in general, 99.9% of everything is crap. 

More About The Web and Beyond

Photos on Flickr:

Blog: BRAM.US, “My Web and Beyond

Evangelist, Editor, and Coach at Informaat Experience Design

Baarn, The Netherlands

Peter BogaardsWith almost 30 years of experience in information design, information architecture, and user-centered design, Peter is a recognized leader in the international information design community. Prior to founding BogieLand, he worked for the InfoDesign & Usability Group of Razorfish Europe and was information and user interface designer at Informaat. He was responsible for the design of intentional user experiences, including user interfaces, site architectures, navigation, and usability for clients such as eBay, Elsevier Science, IBM, Nissan, and Vodafone.  Read More

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