This blog entry is about user experience. I will try to summarize in a few chapters why it matters and what Microsoft is doing to help you produce better "user experiences".

Definitions

<Wikipedia link=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_experience>

User experience, often abbreviated UX, is a term used to describe the overall experience and satisfaction a user has when using a product or system.

<\wikipedia>

User Interfaces are an important aspect of UX, but not the only one. UX is about the overall experience, which includes for instance the "feeling of being safe".

In our vision, UX needs to address the perception of satisfaction the user has with a company's products or services. UX is a key component and it can be a competitive differentiator in markets with a large number of competitors.

Connecting Business & User Experience

Simplifying a little bit the game, you have 2 ways to increase your business:

  • Reach more people (consumers, customers,…)
  • Keep them longer on your assets

A precondition is that they perceive the internet as a secure platform.

So, to introduce a few definitions, experience must improve along 3 Vectors:

  • Reach: The browser is just the beginning. Today, web content & services are bursting out of the browser and extending into other PC apps, the Windows desktop and off the PC entirely into a wide range of alternative devices. Reach touches more users, likely on more devices, and can unlock new monetization opportunities.
  • Fidelity: is about keeping your users for a longer time on your assets by delivering rich, enjoyable user experiences through applications (web sites) that look better and perform better.
    Fidelity drives increased revenue per user; further, better content will attract new users.
  • Security & Identity: covers technologies that improve the user's confidence in e-commerce transactions:

Maximizing your investment 

Let's start from the preconditions: how can you make e-commerce safer.

User Experience & Technologies

I have thought that a short, summarizing table of the most important UX-oriented technologies could be a good starting point. After, I will explain with more details how these technologies really help improving UX. (Please note that I will not explain the technologies but how they can improve UX)

 Technologies for UX

IE7 & Windows CardSpace

Today, there are still plenty of potential e-consumers who are kept away from the net because they perceive it as unsafe. I could take my dad as an example: He would never dare to use his credit card number on any web page. And honestly, I do not dare to push him doing it, not being sure that he can make the difference between a "good site" and a "bad site". Here, is where the technology has to help.

With IE7, Microsoft introduced a few, intuitively-understandable mechanisms to help identifying malicious (phishing) sites (more details here). However, Windows CardSpace is the technology that enables a definitely more secure way to deal with digital identity. To avoid repeating what I have already stated in a previous blog, I remand you to the related entry (à A lighthearted introduction to Windows Cardspace ß).

Maybe you may wonder why I have put a "(X)" for Reach. Well, for IE7 this is pretty easily explained: IE7 is also Microsoft RSS platform. With RSS, we clearly have an easy & effective mean to reach more people.

Regarding the reach of CardSpace, this is more subtle and not for the masses. If you decided to become an Identity Provider (and you are successful), you can potentially reach a very high number of customers through your Identity Cards, which have your logos and are probably bound to your (other) services.

Windows Live Gadgets

One of the easiest ways to increase reach is to profit of the traffic generated by other assets. Windows Live Gadgets, help you achieving this, with limited investment (à Why should you produce a gadget? ß).

Windows Sidebar Gadgets

Windows Sidebar Gadgets also helps you increasing a bit Reach, however, they are much worthier in increasing Fidelity. You have to be smart implementing them, but if you are, you can generate a new strong bound with your customers. Previous entries in my blog (à What should I do to make my Gadget successful? ß), have already touched this topic. From my experience in the field, there is one opinion that I would like to share with you here: Consider implementing gadgets that deliver information on a publish/subscribe-basis. This way, the gadget has "its own life", and you can get in touch with your customers when it is more appropriate. I have seen very elegant "search-gadgets", however, I do not think that they really exploit the potential of this technology. The reason is simply that the user remain in charge of firing the search and, this way, you don't achieve the "fidelity" (stay longer in touch with your customers) that you may want to have.

Technologies for richer User Interfaces

As mentioned in the beginning, UX is not only nicer UIs. However, nicer UIs play an important role. It is important to understand that

  • A nicer UI can make the difference in a market where several competitors offer similar features/functionalities. Think for instance about travel agencies: They all offer very similar services and they often use the similar sources for their data. Why do you prefer agency A over agency B?
  • A "table-representation" of information is no longer the most efficient way of representing data. In Switzerland, the Zurich Airport managed by UNIQUE had issues in the past in understanding in real-time what was happening in the airport. As every airport, they had several parties involved in several airport activities, each of them delivering information about the status of their service. Solved the issue of putting together all this information, they faced the issue of being able to interpret it: the table with several hundreds of entries was quite meaningless to human eye. So, they found a different, more graphical way to represent this information (more information later in this blog entry). In this case, a richer UI not only is a better marketing vehicle for this application but also allows to access information in a much more efficient way, increasing drastically the productivity of its users.
    A very similar situation is also narrated in the Scripps Research Institute case study. Here, a short extract: "With mountains of data created daily, The Scripps Research Institute, a world-renowned cancer and biomedical research facility, needed to help scientists and doctors from a variety of disciplines link their work on potential cancer treatments with the latest research. [...] Using the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.0, Windows Vista™, and Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007, InterKnowlogy created an application that allows researchers to examine 3-D models of cancer cell proteins, annotate the models with relevant data, and then share notes with colleagues. Researchers now spend less time searching for data and more time developing potential treatment solutions."

The figure below summarizes these 2 aspects taking into consideration the pure html mail client, the AJAX-style one, and the installed one. In this case, moving from left to right, not only the UI is nicer and more enjoyable but it also allows us to increase our productivity by making use of richer graphical ways of representing and grouping information.

 Rich User Interfaces

ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions (formerly known under the codename "ATLAS"), Windows Presentation Foundation, and "WPF/E" (still a codename) are the newest Microsoft technologies for UI design and implementation. Each represents an improvement respect the previous technologies and each has a different focus.

 UI Technologies

This figure summarizes the mentioned UI technologies and how they impact Reach and Fidelity. In the next few paragraph, I will try to give you a few more information about them and how they can improve the UX.

ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions ("ATLAS")

The AJAX Extensions is a framework that aims to improve the UX of the classical browser applications, by adding behaviors that until recently were typical for installed application. Key to this framework is the ability to make a 10-year old powerful but complex technology (AJAX) easily available to the broad community of ASP.NET developers.

It consists of

  • Microsoft AJAX Library
    • The client-side "Atlas" javascript library
    • Works with any browser, and also support any backend web server 
  • ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions
    • The server-side "Atlas" functionality that integrates with ASP.NET.
    • These controls will also be built into ASP.NET "Orcas" 
  • ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit

Windows Presentation Foundation

The Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is an extension of the .NET Framework 2.0 and it is part of the .NET Framework 3.0, which is part of Vista and can be installed on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. WPF brings a few very important innovations to UX. It allows to declaratively define User Interfaces through an "XML dialect" called XAML.

 Declarative Programming

XAML has plenty of technical highlights; however, I am currently more interested in the "organizational ones". New tools, like the Expression Blend or Expression Design but also 3rd party ones, are targeting the designer community to give them means to produce rich XAML interfaces that can then be enhanced by developers with the needed business functionalities. What is really new is the fact that designers and developers can work on the same projects (meaning project files!) with different dedicated tools, both using at best their skills to the full benefit of the final solutions.

WPF brings a bunch of innovations in UI design, allowing an easy integration of text, music, animations, videos, 2D and 3D graphics. Additionally, WPF uses the GPU, avoiding that graphic-intensive representations may impact the CPU, and the entire performance of an application. It makes also use of Vector Graphic, virtually allowing to scale user interfaces to every kind (and size) of display.

 WPF

In the case of WPF, nothing can help you better understand the potential of this technology than a few examples.

Before producing a list of applications, I would like to start with a local case to which I am emotionally very close. Almost 2 years ago, I was at PDC in Los Angeles with the tragically departed WalterZ of Neuropie, discussing with him and the WPF product team how cool would be to bring the Zeus project they did for the UNIQUE/Airport Zurich to WPF. We were all very excited and Neuropie passed this enthusiasm to their development partner Zühlke Engineering, which started almost immediately prototyping a WPF solution. Before giving you the links to Zeus, I feel the need to mention other 3 names: DanielP (Zühlke) who brightly leads the development, JürgenW (Neuropie) who piloted successfully the project in a very difficult phase, and our RonnieS who acted as a fantastic bridge between the local development team and the WPF product team in Redmond. Great job guys!

ZEUS 

Others Examples (running within and/or beyond the browser)

Below, you find a few applications that came to my attention in the past. Tim Sneath on his blog publishes regularly new amazing WPF applications: Visit his blog, I warmly recommend it!
Additionally, Channel9 also publishes a list of WPF application.

(Please note that some of the links may change or have already changed)

"WPF/E"

Windows Presentation Foundation / Everywhere is the technology that allows to bring a subset of XAML in the browser, for rich 2D animations, video integration, and vector graphic. With the current Technical Preview (Feb 2007 "WPF/E" Community Preview), javascript is used to interact with XAML, so for instance events generated by XAML objects are coded with javascript.

On the previous figure on UI Technologies, you have surely notice a question mark (QM) in the WPF/e section: This is not there because I am wondering or I don't know what the characteristics of WPF/e are but because Microsoft plans to make a few important revelations about it at MixO7 (end of April. So, for the moment, I have to keep silent… But I warmly suggest you to stay tuned!

Or even better! Come to MIX… MIX

 WPF/E

You can find a few cute, playful examples of WPF/e application on channel9. Please consider them a teaser to inspire your creativity to produce cooler, more business-oriented applications.

Closing on UI Technologies


As you may already have realized, we now have 3 technologies that allow us to produce "better" user interfaces, and finally User eXperience. However, the level of richness and the reach of the applications that you can build with these technologies is proportionally inverse. The richer, the less reach you have. "ATLAS" runs in every decent browser, WPF/e runs within the browser on Windows and Mac (see figures under WPF/e paragraph for details), WPF runs where the .NET 3.0 can run, so finally under Windows Vista, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 (for the latest 2, you have to install the .NET3.0 runtime).

So, the technology you choose strongly depends on your business objectives. There are very good reasons for each technologies and if you would like to discuss with us which one suites your needs better, don't hesitate to contact us.

 Summary