The Role of User-Experience Design in RIAs

Walking home the other day I ran into an old high school classmate who I hadn’t seen in over 12 years. We did the obligatory catching up, and of course she asked what I did for work. What followed was a typical scenario. I explained I was a user-experience consultant for Adobe, which was followed by a blank stare.

“You know, Flash” … Another blank stare.

The fact of the matter is a lot of very bright people use our technology every day, whether it be Flash Video, Flash Applications, PDF, or consume a product that has been designed by Adobe technology, and have no idea that they are using Adobe technology.

In that light, I’ve found that the recent conversations back-and-forth about Silverlight and Flex/Flash have been almost exclusively developer-focused … a sort of, “lets stack our tech-specs and stats up against yours”… and what seems to be getting lost in the conversation is the “User”. The point of this post is not to go down the whole Silverlight / Flash road, but I will say that most, if not all of your users will have no idea whether your app was built in Flex, Silverlight, or AJAX, or event know what those words mean. They will have an experience with your application, and if its a bad experience, regardless of how great the technology is, they won’t come back.

One of the great things about working for Adobe, and with Adobe Technology is that Adobe has a decades-long history when it comes to user-experience design, and been at the forefront of helping to define good user experiences, and enabling others to define great user experiences. However, and this may sound like heresy as an Adobe employee, Adobe does not have a monopoly on user-experience design. Adobe doesn’t “own” user-experience. User experience belongs to the user.

Another great experience that I’ve had working in Flex with some of the best and brightest Flex developers is that I have never designed anything that our developers couldn’t build, and I’ve designed some pretty wild stuff. The response we always get is, “we can build anything, some things just take longer than others”. I love the freedom that I get to design and focus on the user, and not be constrained by the technology.

So, my point of this post is the following.

If you’re going to build a rich internet application, whatever technology you use, do the following:

Hire a great User Experience designer: Flex makes it easier to develop great experiences, but you still need designer to determine what the most appropriate experience is.

Give designer and developer opinions equal weight: Consider the role of the designer as on par with your developer. Developers need designers, and designers need developers.

UX Design is about usability AND polish: Users’ connections to an experience is more than just how easy it was to complete a task. It’s also about an emotional connection. It’s about how fun the experience was, and how visually engaging it was.

Give designers the freedom to go beyond out-of-the-box: Flex includes a good set of out-of-the-box components that make it easy to develop applications. However, don’t limit your designers to that component set. Let them explore and find the best solution possible. And then evaluate how expensive it would be to implement that solution against the user needs.

Here’s to great user experiences.