Ajax and Usability

Does Ajax help our users or help ourselves?

Would Jakob Nielsen just say no to Ajax? Someone seems to think so, as the often controversial usability guru and web pioneer was spoofed in a recent article with the declaration: Ajax sucks. The article parodies nearly word for word Nielsen’s 1996 article Why Frames Suck Most of the Time.

Ifyou’re not a web designer, or are a web designer who’s been living under a rock for a year, Wikipedia defines Ajax as follows:

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or Ajax, is a web development technique for creating interactive web applications using a combination of:

  • XHTML (or HTML) and CSS for marking up and styling information
  • The Document Object Model manipulated through JavaScript to dynamically display and interact with the information presented
  • The XMLHttpRequest object to exchange data asynchronously with the web server. (XML is commonly used, although any format will work, including preformatted HTML, plain text, JSON and even EBML). In some Ajax frameworks and in some situations, an IFrame object is used instead of the XMLHttpRequest object to exchange data with the web server.

In short, the Ajax technologies allow the user to exchange information with a server without a page refresh. You’ll find it running under the hood of many popular web applications known for their fresh, and friendly interfaces; Google Maps, Gmail, Netflix, TaDaLists, and Flickr. You know how when you rate a movie in NetFlix, it updates instantly? Or how when you zoom in on Google Map you don’t have to wait for the page to reload like MapQuest? (Here’s a satellite map for my favorite chinese restaurant, Peking Gourmet, drag the slider on the left and the images will zoom in and out with no delay). And when you go through photosets in Flickr and the new photo appears in place of the old one? All Ajax.

Spoof author, Chris McEvoy, contends that Ajax breaks some of the most integral usability and navigational conventions, such as functional back buttons, url navigation, bookmarking capabilities, and browser compatibility. Additionally, he points out the difficulties for search engines crawling Ajax sites, which are unable to discern which page states to index.

Amidst the wave of Ajax backlash, as many sites are popping up praising Ajax’s usability for once cumbersome interactions that required reloading an entire page, or multiple pages; particularly communication and forms, radio boxes, and data sorting. See Alex Bosworth’s 10 Places You Must Use Ajax. Both camps can agree, however, against Ajax for Ajax’s sake, which can potentially slow down browsers with excessive code. It’s hard to deny Ajax’s place with the popularity of “Web 2.0″ implementations like Gmail, Google Maps, and Netflix, but as with any new technology, developers must first ask themselves “How is this going to help my user?” Just like Flash, Ajax won’t kill a site, poor application will.

7 thoughts on “Ajax and Usability”

  1. Ajax won’t kill a site, poor application will.

    Same as any emerging web technology, I suppose. There is plenty of room for the design community to experiment, but Ajax, like most emerging technologies, should facilitate the net-use of everyday surfers without necessarily them even being aware of it.

    For example, some study posted recently said that 70% of RSS/Atom feedreader users did not know that what they were using was called RSS/Atom, or how it worked, or anything. They simply used it, it became an integrated part of their web experience.

    Ajax needs to be the same way; content is still king, and we’d be wise to use Ajax to facilitate content to the user’s end, not our own.

    Great article, by the way.

  2. I use ajax and it’s fine It mesesup some things in other browsers , make people kinda iritating a bit but overall it’s fine and the problems are capable of fixing with some extra time.o and I got to agree on what phil said there also!

  3. Phil, I agree. That’s part of Flash’s downfall, is because it’s so misused users who ordinarily would have no idea what technology they’re viewing a page with respond “Oh Flash, eew, I’d better click AdBlock.” Ajax should be subtle and enhance the user’s experience so much so they don’t even know it’s there.

  4. AJAX is a great tool for web applications. It’s like a nuclear power, if you now how to use it you will not bring disaster. But we have to remember that robots do not like AJAX :). That’s the reason why I am using AJAX in web applications not much on web sites.

    Enjoy AJAX

  5. One thing developers never seem to think of are the users of satellite internet. The comments about ajax not breaking a site are only part true. Heavy ajax usage over satellite makes a site all but useless as the latency is around 1 second. Waiting for each packet to come through to modify a section of a page is horrible I would rather view the page with a 9600kb modem.

    A second, static page for high latency would be a good Idea, just like different code for different browsers.

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