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It seems like everyone and their dogs are rushing to put “applications” on the web. I think this is for two reasons. First, it’s a natural evolution from using static web pages (Web 1.0), to using ajax to make the Web behave more like software (Web 2.0), to using the Internet to “be” software.

Second, using a web browser as the user interface looks like an attractive solution to the problem of designing effective user interfaces, because everyone knows how to use a browser. But web browsers have limitations. And designing effective software interfaces is not a simple task.

Usability is important in creating an effective web site. And poor usability on a web site may lead to lost sales, or users not being able to find what they are looking for.

Usability in applications is even more critical. In addition to the financial investment in an application, you need to factor in the cost of lost employee productivity – the hours spent working with the tool.

Web-based applications are often used on intranets for things like content management systems, document management systems, and asset management systems, just to name a few. These may be created by a major company (such as Adobe,  Google, or IBM), may be open source (such as Drupal), or may be custom-built by internal teams. Oddly their success lies less in who creates them than with the care with which they are created. Web-based applications with good user interfaces enhance employee productivity.

On the flip side, I’ve seen launches delayed when web-based applications cannot respond quickly enough. I have seen internal teams create their own tools to replace using a company-wide web-based application that is difficult to use.  Imagine the hours—and dollars—lost when employees invest time in creating workarounds for unusable tools. Multiply the number of employees by the time lost per task and employees’ hourly wages for another look at the cost of bad usability. Combine those two factors, and you can get a sense of the return on investment that good user interfaces represent. This is not trivial!

With the cost of bad usability in mind, here are a few best practices:

  • First, if you are building web applications hire a user interface expert. Don’t rely on the software engineers.
  • Second, use web standards and commit to providing cross-browser support for current browsers.
  • Third, If you are a user thinking of buying one of these applications, don’t be wowed by the pretty web interface. Make sure that the tool works cross browser, that it works well with the volume of data you expect to be managing, and that it performs as fast as a desktop application would perform.

I’d even be willing to suggest that usability is as important as application functionality.