Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thick or thin for heads-down workers

Thick or thin, that is the question. At least for 'heads-down' workers typically involved with processing large amounts of information on screen extremely rapidly, thick client applications have long been considered the only way to go.

Proponents of thick clients used to argue for the richness of UI that could be presented, but I feel that modern browser based apps on the web show that this doesn't have to be the way. I'm sure you have your favorites you use every day.

So it comes back to performance - speed of refreshing the screen and displaying information. Heads-down users need the applications to work fast, update dynamic data rapidly, display document images in sub-second times, so that their boss can benefit from an aggregate of 'per-click' savings. Thick client-server apps claim the gold standard here.

Can dynamic AJAX applications really keep up? After all, the limitation here becomes the latency of the network. Can browser applications compete with the thick client running on an over-inflated PC generating dynamic displays from data cached ahead of time? Unlikely, as the thick client probably wins every time, pulling data behind the scenes in large chunks.

So, can we really say that browser based UIs are suitable for heads down workers, or are they just more convenient for IT in not having to roll out complex installable applications? Or are browser based apps up to the task? After all modern networks are fast, clever data caching can be built in, and new Javascript engines are claiming to get orders of magnitude faster.

Silverlight and Flash are battling for the new rich Internet application space. I question whether they just provide a nice toolset for building highly dynamic application UIs that roll out easily, or can they really provide a higher performance operation? Don't get me wrong, anything that speeds the design and deployment of applications is a good thing, but when they are really a nice skin on Internet technology, can they offer the performance of a true thick app?

When the standard heads-down applications typically are plain, keyboard driven, frankly having little glitz or glamour, is there a place for rich Internet application technologies? Or will software vendors just adopt them as a sales tool, to out-pretty the other guys.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog


Anonymous said...

This isn't fundamentally different from the arguments about green screens versus client-server: greens screens are still widely used for many applications in part because they are faster than client-server applications. Much of that is due to the totally crap design of many of the client-server apps, which appear to have been designed by a developer who never spent a minute watching a data entry operator work, so doesn't understand the necessity for keyboard shortcuts for everything. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard an internal developer or vendor state how easy it was because the users could just click and drag, when all the users really want to do is use their keyboard to maximize speed.

RIAs will come under the same fire, but converting from a bad client-server app to a good RIA should be an improvement if the developer has considered some of the real needs of a transaction-processing user.

Phil Ayres said...


I agree. UI design is routinely flawed, even in green screen apps. Its just that without a mouse as a fall back, users learn how many times they have to hit the tab key to get from one field they use to the next (17 tabs for an insurance application I saw).

So like many things, I think you are suggesting that its not the technology that matters. With any UI technology its the thought and design that addresses the user/business problem (within the constraints of the technology) that is most important.

Thanks for the comment.