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Prescribing AJAX: Panacea, Placebo, or Poison? Peeling the AJAX Onion

Mike Padilla will be speaking at AJAXWorld Conference & Expo 2008 East, March 18-20, 2008, in New York City

When to Get Rich
When evaluating whether or not to use AJAX, we need start upstream during the early design process when the user experience is conceptually designed. For example, imagine we have four sections of related content. We can choose to simply display the four sections in a four cell table or we could use an expanding/collapsing accordion control.  While an accordion control may seem cool, is its interactivity warranted? Is there fundamental value in hiding some content while viewing other content? Perhaps screen real estate is at a premium so the space saving behavior of the accordion is warranted. But would it be more beneficial to see all panels always open so that users can view information in context of other information?
Such design issues should be initially addressed solely in respect to conceptual usability, independent of any specific technical considerations. Once conceptual usability issues have been considered, it is time to investigate the technical implementation implications to the user experience.
Let’s assume the accordion control is well prescribed from a pure conceptual design perspective – the benefits that it affords outweigh its drawbacks. If the accordion will be implemented purely with DHTML, the designer should consider potential page state and accessibility issues. If the accordion panel has to retrieve information from the server based on the user’s interactions, we’ll need to use AJAX and consider its additional drawbacks.
Once we head down the AJAX path, we must consider the somewhat veiled, full set of usability drawbacks related to page state, caching, accessibility, and findability that accompany it. These are not merely technical drawbacks. These are drawbacks that directly affect the user as a result of the technical implementation. Do the benefits of the conceptual design still outweigh the drawbacks of the conceptual design coupled with the drawbacks that AJAX brings? If they don’t, you’ll likely want to go with the static four cell table.
Conceptually, the entire Web could be rendered as one giant AJAX application. It’s obvious that that would make no sense, but when does it make sense to use AJAX? It’s all about page context. AJAX is most sensibly used when the user most benefits from a persistent context. Put another way, when the user can cause a small amount of information to change relative to a large amount of information that should remain unchanged.

More Stories By Mike Padilla

Mike Padilla is a user experience manager at Vanguard. He has led front-end development efforts for such companies as Fleet Credit Cards, Mellon Private Asset Management, The Bank of New York, Radian Guaranty, and Bessemer Trust. Macromedia has featured his usability designs. He received a B.S. in mechanical engineering, focusing on ergonomics, from Cornell University.
Padilla is an ardent advocate of high-fidelity prototyping during requirements development. In his spare time, he designed and developed Protonotes, a free AJAX web service that allows project team members to discuss system functionality, design, and requirements directly on prototypes with "sticky notes".

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