Usability Friends: AJAX

Pro's and Con's - Using Ajax for Building a Better User Experience

People have long begun discussing about the development and inevitable appearance of what is called "Web 2.0". This is supposed to be the upgraded, better version of the Web environment as we know it today. Technologies and techniques are being devised in order to better support the transition to Web 2.0. Apparently, this new and supposedly better generation of the Web will be based on blogging, podcasting, wikis, online Web services, Web APIs (Application Programming Interface), etc.

Among the techniques that will allow Web 2.0 to make the users' experience far more pleasant than it is today, we can mention Ajax. It is believed (and Web developers are making huge efforts in this direction) that Web sites built on the Ajax framework will offer better usability, be more user-friendly and also provide a far more interactive and attractive interface.

What is AJAX?

Ajax is a term used for the first time by Jesse James Garrett, and is the short version of Asynchronous JavaScript And XML. It designates a technique that is used for the development of Web applications. Ajax aims at using the most common Web technologies (i.e. XML, DOM (Document Object Model), CSS and Javascript, with the purpose of creating more responsive and ergonomic user interfaces.

Ajax stands out by allowing the modification of only a part of the Web page that needs to be updated. It does this by creating a local HTTP request and by modifying all or only part of the Web page, according to the returned HTTP request.

Ajax implementations should be made with the user in mind, that's what specialists suggest. Just because new technologies are appealing to the developer, they may not be as attractive to a business's customers, existing or prospective. For this reason, some even recommend that Ajax-based Web sites also be available in plain HTML format, which is far more familiar to most Web users.

PROs

  • Available for and compatible with most Web browsers (IE, Mozilla Firefox, Safari)
  • Allows the modification of a part of a page without having to refresh the whole thing;
  • Offers a better, more pleasant experience to the users;
  • Decreases the bandwidth usage, by generating the HTML locally (i.e. within the browser), and thus leading to faster Web page loading time;
  • Well-implemented Ajax can lead to better Web site usability, and thus improve the conversion rate;
  • Ajax allows companies to reach customers on an emotional level, by offering them products with more personality and thus enhancing the user experience;
  • It allows the development of new methods and approaches that can meet the users' continuously growing expectations with regard to the use of certain products;
  • Web site developers have the possibility to give sites a more professional, better-organized look.

CONs

  • Not compatible with all the existing Web Browsers (e.g. Opera, but there are rumors that it will be);
  • Purely Javascript applications are not recommended at present, one of the reasons being the incompatibility between Ajax and the "BACK" button, a building block of the traditional Web site user interfaces;
  • There are SEO issues as well, since search engine spiders don't know how to index dynamic pages. The creation of a sitemap is recommended for sites that rely on Ajax;
  • Ajax is incompatible with many assistive technologies, such as screen readers for visually impaired users;
  • Some Ajax-specific characteristics, such as color blinking behind changes, can become distracting and even tiring if changes are made frequently (as in the case of stock quotes on Yahoo!Finance);
  • In order for Ajax to work, Javascript has to be enabled for the browser in use, and the browser must support the XMLHttpRequest object.

Examples

One of the best examples of Ajax usability is its implementation by Google for their Gmail, Google Maps and Google Suggest services. Among its key features, Gmail allows adding contact details as soon as emails are sent to unknown recipients and offers lists of relevant contacts when the user starts typing in the To, CC or BCC fields. Google Maps provides various types of maps, and the most obvious feature of this service is that these maps are updated instantly as the user drags, zooms in or out on a map. Google Suggest uses the "type-ahead" feature, which means that, as the user types the keywords, suggestions are offered together with the number of possible results for the respective suggestions.

Another example is Yahoo!Finance . Here, stock quotes are updated in real time. As a characteristic of the Ajax implementation, all the changes are announced by a highlighting color that flashes behind them. Also, tab clicks take effect immediately, without refreshing the entire page.
Still from Yahoo!, there is their Search Service, which behaves in a similar manner to Google's Suggest, with the exception that it does not indicate the number of possible results for each suggestion.

As part of Web 2.0, Ajax is starting to be used for blogs that rely on content syndication. Such a blog is The Content Wrangler. The Podcasts section allows users to view syndicated content, when clicking on the title of a specific podcast, on the right side of the page without refreshing the page altogether.

Conclusion

Web 2.0 comes with changes and upgrades. Of course, as it always happens in such cases, there are people that embrace change whole-heartedly, while others are rather reluctant and prefer to remain faithful to what they were used to. Nevertheless, the changes and benefits that Ajax brings cannot only alter (in a good way) the way usability is perceived, but it can also help developers deliver desktop quality applications via the Web.

Yet, as any new technique, Ajax needs first to learn how to walk in order to grow big and for Web user to really appreciate what it can offer. Ultimately, as developers will improve it, Ajax will probably prove to be a real gem for Web sites.

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