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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

AJAX Blind Date – Designer Meet Developer
While AJAX has introduced new concepts to consider while designing the user experience, it has also shined the spotlight on the designer/developer handoff. Before AJAX and DHTML, designers could deliver design flats that depicted how a webpage should look and developers had complete freedom to choose how to implement it. Whether they chose Java, or .NET, or PHP, the final product and the user experience was not impacted by the technical implementation.
 
As DHTML, and more so AJAX, became more widely embraced, something changed fundamentally. The user experience design and the technical implementation are no longer isolated. A designer’s user experience design now dictates to a higher degree what type of technology must be used. If the designer specifies that HTML table data must be filtered without reloading the page, the developer cannot use “static” HTML. The developer must use AJAX.
 
On the flipside, the technical implementation that a developer chooses now affects the user experience. If the designer does not specify that a page with three tabs should be implemented as three separate pages or one AJAX page with three AJAX calls, the developer will decide. Depending on his choice to use traditional “static” HTML or AJAX, the user experiences, and the end users, are affected. This represents a fundamental shift in web development where designers and developers must bleed into each other’s domain to understand the respective impacts and limitations.
 
The resulting need for improved communication between designer and developer places additional responsibility on documentation. With a static html website, designers could hand over design flats. As the Web became more interactive, requirement artifacts had to encompass visual and behavioral aspects of the design. High fidelity prototypes were well suited to the task. With AJAX, we have the new dimension of specifying when data should be loaded – with initial page load or asynchronously on demand. We could even get fancy with pre-fetching data similar to how Google Maps works. Here is where things start to get slippery between design and development. This is a true gray area where designers and developers must collaborate for an effective solution because the designed user experience impacts the technology and the technology impacts the user experience. Each side must understand its impact to produce the best product.
 
Every Pot Has a Lid
In the same way that TV did not replace radio, and the Web did not replace books, AJAX does not replace DHTML and DHTML does not replace static HTML. There are benefits and drawbacks along the entire static HTML to dynamic HTML to AJAX continuum. There are characteristics of a user experience that make it more applicable to use just static HTML or just DHTML or full blown AJAX. There is a danger in over-prescribing AJAX to address all user experience issues, from both the user experience design and the technical implementation perspectives. Designers and developers must know enough about AJAX to avoid doing so. By understanding what AJAX affords and which user experience characteristics lend themselves to an AJAX implementation, designers and developers can more suitably use AJAX to deliver more engaging user experiences.

Mike Padilla will be giving a session at AJAXWorld Conference & Expo 2008 East, in New York City, on AJAX Applicability: When Should AJAX Be Used?

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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