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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Richness: The Web in 3D

What is Richness?

Richness in terms of a user interface means that the application provides a rich interaction model, a rich visual model and richness in the data and logic it provides. This is in fact a good way to think about richness—in three dimensions: the visual dimension, the interaction dimension and the data dimension. These three dimensions provide ways for communication to happen between the user and the system. They allow the user to visualize the system, interact with it and change or find information it contains.

Axiom of Richness: An interface is only as rich as its ability to communicate in all three dimensions.

Visual Richness

First, a user interface must visually communicate with the user. We often call this the presentation or the view of an interface. It is communication that moves outward from the software to the user. Along the visual dimension we find techniques like affordances, feedback, visual styles and graphical visualization. These techniques help an application create visual richness. But the key to richness is whether there is communication happening along the visual channel. Providing cinematic effects, blinking, flashing and other bells and whistles when abused can actually reduce the richness of an application. It is the finesse along this channel that creates a rich visual experience

It is interesting to note that the web has always had the potential for some level of visual richness. Free from the more stylized approach of desktop applications and with an open visual palette, web sites and applications have tended to be more visually stunning. The visual dimension though has often been on the static side. With the introduction of cinematic effects (visual effects that are more akin to those used in the world of cinema for transitional effects), the web now has the tools for expressing visual richness along a time continuum.

(Note: for simplicity I focus on the visual dimension. In reality it can include audible clues or in the case of those visually or audibly handicapped feedback along other tools like site readers.)

Interaction Richness

Second, a user interface must allow the user to interact freely with its interface. The user must feel freedom of movement, freedom to change their mind, the ability to interact directly with objects in the interface and the capability to make small changes and see the resulting impact. These interactions combine user events with feedback in the visual dimension. Previously on the web the main events included: submitting a form or clicking a hyperlink. With DHTML and Ajax support, the granularity of events has become finer in detail. User interaction can be as minute as the motion of the mouse or as coarse as submitting a form.

But again, richness in interaction is only as good as the communication it affords. Drag and drop and hover events do not necessarily make an interface rich. It is the proper uses of interaction communication tools (events) that make a rich interaction possible.

The desktop has long provided the capacity for rich interaction. It is the advent of Ajax + DHTML that opens up the door for the same level of interaction for the web. (Of course, this also includes the world of Flash as an alternative RIA model.)

Data Richness
But the final ingredient to rich communication is what the user can do with the world of information available on the web. And more specifically how tailored the information and state is to the user. If the application can remember the user’s previous state, allow the user to perform rapid lookups in place and do validation inline (all without a page refresh) then the potential for richness is even greater. Without the ability to change and find information rapidly, visual and interaction richness are severely limited. It is like owning a sports car but not being able to drive it.

If the information is relevant and lively then the interface will have the feel of richness. This is an essential ingredient to the experience that makes the Web 2.0 a platform for the come-to-me web.

Three Degrees of Freedom

Being able to move data freely in and out of the user’s space is a key to creating a rich experience in all three dimensions. In the classic web model we had a lot of freedom along the visual dimension (sometime to our own injury :-) We had a lot of freedom along the interaction dimension... but it was limited since the sandbox was the page. Ajax broke down the wall of the data dimension-- enhancing the other dimensions along with it.

This is one way to think about richness. In 3D.

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