With the advent of Web 2.0, web applications, thin applications and Software as a Service have lead to a fast development of Rich Internet Applications, in particular the user interface (UI) and usability. Whether they are based on AJAX, Flex or Silverlight, they all have a common purpose: provide an improved user experience through a thin client, at least comparable to fat client’s if no better.
Along the years, many software providers looked forward porting their current business applications to web based platforms, mainly for easing the maintenance, avoiding client deployment. These platforms, mainly based on J2EE technologies, were mostly made of static display, although the content was generated dynamically. On the usability level, users have gone from bad to worse. We all know business software has never been sexy. In addition to that, people now had to deal with constant refresh of pages for every action, increased wait-time while data was submitted to the server, as HTTP is not an optimized protocol for transactional applications.
On the other side, developers had to deal with issues like supporting several platforms (combination of browser/OS), new security aspects on uncontrolled layers, harder user acceptance.
The transition from fat client to thin client has merely been a mess for most software vendors. Reason ? This transition has been mainly technical and product managers have forgotten the main brick: the users.
Any change must under-go a global user acceptance. Especially when it comes to business software, that’s something people will use constantly on a daily basis for their work, you need to make sure to have a wide adoption and make it mainstream. For this purpose, the change must be user-centric.
RIA have the advantage of being naturally user focused. They tend to improve the user experience, allowing a more interactive approach with the web application, unlike HTML.
To the users, RIA comes with its own set of benefits:
- Increase productivity
- Enable an engaging, interactive user experience without page reloads or refreshes
- Provide real-time data management
- Allow users to interactively visualize and manipulate complex data more effectively and easily (drill-down, drag and drop…)
- Assisted inputs (interactive search, predictive typing…)
- Optimized screen layout (reduction of complexity)
- Keep pace with the users expectations. The UI for their business software are now aligned with those of their daily personal apps (E-Mail, Social Networks, Document sharing…)
On the other side, by creating a custom rich front-end, developers can have a better enablement of the process centric aspect of the application. This becomes even more important when the process goes above a simple application boundaries to be executed onto several platforms. Screen flows can be designed and organized according to the business process requirements while providing a uniform UI for all the process steps. Screens can be drastically reduced by automating the values of some fields and make them transparent to the users.
With RIA, companies are now able to address most of the users current issues with business software which are mainly:
- It is very complex
- It looks like crap
Through rewrapping their main processes into RIA, companies might increase their user productivity through this mix of process centric (screen flow) and user centric (usability) interface. Some software vendors now tend to understand that and are extending their frameworks to support new technologies that would allow them to enable this into their portals and mashups (SAP has introduced the support of Web Dynpro and AJAX and Adobe® Flash® in SAP).
But just above the technical aspects of the technology, the complete product/project management chain must be educated on the value of these new user interfaces.