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Is RIA Design Degenerating into "Skinning-the-Functionality"?

"With the release of Flex 2 and AS3, it seems that all the RIA 'design' talk has turned to skinning"

Something I've been thinking a lot about since the release of Flex 2 is the impact of the RIA designer-developer work flow. Jesse Warden has a number of great posts relating his views on this topic, and from my own experience, most of his observations are right on the money. Ryan Stewart also recently posted here about Flash developer/designer specialization and work flow. It's a topic thats certainly worth exploring and I get the feeling its going to have a fair impact on the quality of RIA produced over the next 6-12 months.

Six to twelve months ago I was involved in basically one of two work flows for a typical Flash RIA project.

1) Flash-designer/Devigner to Developer:

The Flash-designer/Devigner would put together a 'working' prototype, the client would sign off on that design, and I'd get handed the prototype files and a functional requirements document from someone wearing one of those 'hee hee, good luck sucka' smiles. From there, I'd architect the system, salvage what I could from the prototype and go about putting Humpty back together again.

2) Graphic designer to Developer:

The graphic designer would put together a static design, the client would sign off on it, and I'd be handed the png design files and the functional requirements document, blah, blah, blah and off I'd go.

For me, the 'Graphic designer to Developer flow' is always the easier path as a developer. It basically becomes a game of 'skinning-the-functionality'. Meddlesome sometimes, but not so difficult once you get the hang of it. On the other hand, reincarnating Humpty as an OO, high performance, maintainable RIA that still looks and feels like the original Humpty can be tough. But in my experience, it is the Flash-designer/Devigner to Developer flow that results in better RIA. Why? I'm guessing its because the person responsible for designing the application has an in-depth knowledge of what Flash is capable of and knows how to implement most of their design ideas. They aren't limited to creating skins for the out-of-the-box components. They are able to apply their knowledge of Flash and Actionscript to create custom solutions to the design problems at hand.

With the release of Flex 2 and AS3, it seems that all the RIA 'design' talk has turned to skinning. I'll be the first to agree how powerful the skinning and css capabilities of Flex are. Really handy stuff and there are some great examples out there of applications which use fantastic skins. Unfortunately, as Sho Kuwamoto posted about here, there still seems to be a lot of 'generic looking' Flex applications getting around. But designing great skins does not equate to designing great RIA. The mighty devigner has slipped into the shadows and we've been left with, at best, some talented graphic designers producing great skins and, at worst, developers taking responsibility for application design (Note: there are some very talented developers out there carrying the torch. No disrespect to any of you.). Either way, it would appear that the 'Flash-designer to Developer' flow has all but disappeared and we've been left with variations of 'skinning-the-functionality' flow. In my books this is big step backward for RIA.

IMHO, RIA has reached its current position due to its 'richness'. Skinning is great, but it doesn't make rich all by itself.

A part of me wants to think that this is just a temporary glitch in the overall scheme. Flash designers and developers are just going through the AS3 learning curve at the moment and are going to come back bigger and badder than ever. Some will even morph into Flex or RIA-designers (bring that on). I'm sure that with the release of Blaze this will eventuate to a certain extent, but another part of me is still worried.

I've been messing around with the beta release of Blaze, creating custom components for use in Flex applications. Jesse has a good post to get you started if you're interested in learning how it's done. I had a pretty good grip on AS3 before I started and I've been developing custom components without timeline code since AS2 was released, so I got the hang of it pretty quickly. But I'm a RIA client developer. Building and extending custom components like that is a big chunk of what I do, and I'd like to think I do it pretty well. The reason I'm worried is that I'm not convinced a lot of designers are going to want to learn to design the AS3 way. Not aren't capable of learning it. Just won't want to unless they absolutely have to. The top end designers will be cool. They'll take the new "a symbol is a now a class and there's no more library instances" way of thinking in their stride. But for a majority of Flash designers, who rely heavily on the timeline and timeline code, it's going to be a big step. Some will decide to make it, but I'm worried the majority will go the other way and settle for being skin designers. That's a lot of talent and design power to lose. The result being the average quality of RIA design ending up far lower than its potential.

What concerns me more is if there will be enough motivation for designers to commit to learning the new of skills. Under tight deadlines, designing a set of skins for existing components is far more feasible than designing an application from the ground up. Especially, if it's a Flex application. I hope my interpretation of the signs is wrong. I'd hate to see RAD become a force for lower quality RIAs.

More Stories By Marcus Coghlan

Marcus Coghlan blogs at www.weblycan.com.

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