When a Web page is no longer a page

September 5, 2008

With Google’s announcement and release this week of their own Web browser, Chrome, a lot of discussion has taken place amongst my colleagues about the potential impact of yet another Web browsing option. Based on Google’s track record, reputation, and the description of Chrome’s features, I have no doubt that this new Web browser will eventually make its mark on the Internet world. But what fascinated me more than Chrome’s features and benefits was Google’s statement on why they chose to make a browser. Contained in their rationale was an observation I’ve also claimed for years — that the use of the Web and Web “sites” has changed significantly. Google sums it up this way:

“We realized that the web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications…”

Indeed, when I first hit the World Wide Web in early 1995, the WWW was almost entirely static pages of textual information. Explaining the Web to new PC users wasn’t terribly difficult. I framed my descriptions of the WWW as “pages” of content — like a page from a magazine, book, flier, or catalog — all viewed through a piece of software — the browser.

Of course, as the web evolved, we continued to push the original medium to its limits, adding primitive interactivity via forms coupled with server-side technologies for data processing. That’s where the line started to blur. Today, we’ve somewhat reinvented the Web to allow for more sophisticated imitation of traditional* programs/applications within the browser, gaining the benefit of transmitting both the “program” and the program’s data across the Internet/network. With the more recent push toward completely distributed applications and mobile capabilities, a good many sites are looking and performing like entire software apps or suites running right in the browser. The odd thing about this rapid evolution is that these new tools are all still being developed and accessed on top of the original Web framework… individual pages accessed one at a time with a browser program. Our “Web software” still relies on the Web browser and what it can provide.

Now think about all of this from the newer PC user’s perspective. Understanding software programs is one hurdle. Understanding the Internet and the Web is yet another. Once the distinctions between the two have been blurred, in some cases to the point of the latter replacing the former, how can the technology teacher adequately explain — and the new user grasp — all the finer differences? After all, while many Web sites have pushed toward application-level interfaces, “old-fashioned” Web pages on sites still abound. For PC users most familiar with old-fashioned (non-networked, non-distributed) software, how will they perceive and make sense of the shift?

To provide a case in point, I recently had the opportunity to observe some pre-release user testing of an upgrade to an existing Web-based application. The largest “ah-ha” moment for me was when I realized the concept older users most struggled with was that their “software” — the application running via the Web browser — could and would be changed without them taking any action (e.g.: user-initiated installation.) With careful questioning, it became obvious to me that the users viewed the application like any locally-installed software application rather than a Web site. They couldn’t understand (let alone articulate) the difference.

This subtle but increasingly commonplace difference was a challenge to deal with as I wrote the introduction to the Internet/Web chapter in my forthcoming book, The Ultimate PC Primer. I’m still not sure I’ve adequately communicated the differences, but there’s only so much one can write in the attempt to explain it. My lingering and somewhat fearful thought today is: how will Google change this even more considering their claim that Chrome will “power the next generation of web applications that aren’t even possible in today’s browsers.” Perhaps Chrome will become the long-anticipated “platform” for fully-distributed applications, setting that concept apart from simple Web page browsing. If not, my hope is that whatever Chrome evolves into doesn’t make the Web much more confusing for new users than it has already become.

* By “traditional,” I mean “installed” software, which many in the IT industry would call a thick client or fat client. Pardon my informality, but I’m not usually concerned about the exact industry terms…”insider speak” doesn’t help much when attempting to explain concepts to new users.

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Are we teaching or "giving fish?"

August 25, 2008

My high school algebra instructor had this saying posted in his classroom and quoted it frequently: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” When a student was asked to answer a difficult equation aloud, others in the room often wanted to assist by whispering hints. With a twinkle in his eye, our teacher would respond to this with, “Are you giving fish?”

I recently was reminded of “giving fish” when I was asked for advice regarding a Web page “problem.” The site owner wanted to add a feature that would help users locate textual content within some rather lengthy Web pages. In the owner’s mind, the ideal solution was to trigger the browser’s Find/Search on Page feature (Control+F) via an in-page link, much like the Print dialog can be activated from a “Print this Page” link. When my research confirmed that the Find dialog couldn’t be triggered from a link, the owner’s next question was, “Can you code something that will do the same thing?” My response: “Why can’t we just teach them to use Control+F?” Why spend time and effort to replicate what the browser can do already — essentially, develop a costly “fish” when we could instead do a little teaching?

With mindsets like these, it’s indeed an interesting time to be a new software user. Generally speaking, most software is developed for and targeted at those who already know how to use software. After all, the interface concepts — menus, buttons, etc. — don’t generally change much. However, in the last few years I’ve noticed a new phenomenon: software for those who don’t understand software (or PCs) at all. In other words, programs meant to serve those who don’t really understand the technology they’re using. In the attempt to meet the needs of such a user, even the most basic computer operations are controlled by the software, giving the end user few choices for exploration, little chance to learn new concepts/skills, and virtually no hope for taking control of their computing experience (self-sufficiency). Now don’t misunderstand me. I strongly support developing software that can serve users at multiple skill levels, and designing with new users in mind is admirable. Additionally, there is certainly a place for software that helps users accelerate lengthy manual processes (“shortcut software”). What concerns me is software which also shields the user from gaining knowledge of basic concepts that would otherwise be required (or at least beneficial) for everyday computer usage. In short, the software is “giving fish,” and shortcut software sometimes steps into fish-giving territory. Here’s an example…

One of my relatives has several pieces of shortcut software for digital photo organization and transfer. (This software was either handed out by local stores that offer photo printing services, or it came bundled with the digital cameras.) It’s clear he doesn’t quite understand how the software moves image files from camera to PC and organizes the files on the hard disk. Based on the way the software functions, he believes he can only do with digital photo files what the software allows. For example, he once wanted to back up the photos to a CD, but the software doesn’t provide this feature, so he doesn’t know how it can be done. Of course it can be done but not with the limited feature set of the software that is allegedly supposed to be serving new users so well. Now, if he had a firm grasp of file management concepts, this scenario might be different. But as a newer user, he’s been fed fish continually and doesn’t have that self-sufficiency.

So I think my Algebra teacher was onto something. If self-sufficiency only comes by teaching, when and why did we stop teaching new users basic concepts? It’s no wonder the software vendors have tried to compensate. Will the trend continue? Only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s continue to leverage teachable moments. Speaking of which…

For those wondering how the Web page saga turned out, the owners eventually agreed, and the site went live with a “Search on this page” link that simply presented the message, “Press Control+F to search on any Web page.” While not elegant — and admittedly much more of a “triage” solution than redesigning all the site owner’s lengthy pages — at least we helped teach a few more users to fish for themselves.