Change Management

Buried Riches: Can Vendors Overcome their RIA Flaws?

Change Management columnist Bola Rotibi explores the issues hindering development of rich interactive applications in the enterprise. (Part 1 of 2)

The tragic flaw. It’s the fundamental truth at the heart of nearly all great classical tragedy -- and tragic irony as well: the idea that the same trait which makes a hero great also ultimately destroys them. The ‘vaulting ambition’ that drives Macbeth to success, for instance, also brings about his downfall.

There would seem to be little in common between the epic sweep of Macbeth and the world of rich Internet application development, yet many of the same factors are at play. Consider the issue of User Experience (UX). Software vendors often talk a great game when it comes to addressing UX and the development of richer Internet, interactive and user-centric applications -- -- particularly in reaching out to new users. But these firms struggle to galvanize the corporate market over the critical value of compelling UX in their business applications. Furthermore, their efforts to appeal to the well establish communities of developers and designers seem doomed to disappoint.

Why? For two reasons: The first is that the very factors that have made these players successful in the past prevent them from taking the radical steps required to really grow the market and reach out to the new users today. The second is that much of the cultural and infrastructure changes required to make the value proposition of RIA really fly, and to make the purpose of UX a first class concern for corporate development teams, are still evolving.

A Market Ascendant
Make no mistake, user experience is on the upswing. The explosion of digital media technology and content, affordable and ubiquitous Internet connectivity, and the proliferation of mobile devices have placed a new emphasis on user experience and engagement. Application and content design today are increasingly driven by the need to provide compelling interaction that keeps users loyal, engaged and productive.

Suppliers of consumer facing applications and products know all this and have embraced the technologies, tools and processes that enable rich UX development. The wider corporate market, however, is only slowly waking up to the potential for their internal business applications, including rich Internet/Interactive Applications (RIA) that deliver desktop-style UX over the Web. So with a market potential that is immensely large, who and what is applying the brakes?

Flawed Leadership
Two vendors have staked a lead in the UX space, Adobe and Microsoft. They have provided the tools and platforms to make it easy for developers and designers to work together to efficiently deliver experience and engagement, but there are significant flaws in their marketing messages and product strategies.

Microsoft has raced into a leadership position with Silverlight, its application framework and virtual machine for integrated multimedia, graphics and animation. The depths of integration and interoperability between the frameworks and the design and development tools (Expression Studio and Visual Studio, respectively) is impressive. Developers and designers can go back and forth within their chosen environment and make changes to both code and design without impinging or overwriting the other's work. The capability shows a recognition of the iterative interaction that needs to happen in user-centric applications.

Consider Expression Blend’s SketchFlow tool. As I wrote in a blog when Expression Studio 3 was launched in July 2009, SketchFlow “offers a simple and very important value proposition: bringing the user interface designer in from the cold, giving them a legitimate and valuable placing within the software delivery team and a recognizable role in the software development and delivery process.”.

Like other wireframe and prototyping tools, SketchFlow serves the important purpose of addressing context and interaction as part of the requirements capture process for GUI-based applications. These are features that can govern the overall experience and engagement of the user, driving perceived quality and user satisfaction.

But Microsoft’s drive to promote the Windows platform over those that designers are already using poses a challenge to the company and could blunt its prospect for growth in this space. Microsoft has not helped its cause with a licensing and SKU model that wooed many designers to Expression Studio 3 and SketchFlow back in 2009, only to limit access to those solutions to the premium SKUs in Expression Studio 4. The furor surrounding licenses and the dropping of SketchFlow, in addition to the normal migration hiccups that occur with a new version release, has produced some ill will in a community nascent to Microsoft and important in its drive for UX and RIA development.

Adobe on the other hand has long held a strong position within the design and UX community as a result of its Creative Suite tools, Flash platform and technology, strong cross-platform support, and wide deployment of its core technologies across desktop and mobile handset platforms. Adobe has pushed the experience and engagement story for many years, and like Microsoft, has worked to streamline the developer/designer workflow.

It has implemented a similar application development model and design framework, called Flex, that maintains both a separation of concerns and synchronized alignment between the two roles. Flash Catalyst is the company’s design board for wire framing and prototyping interactive applications. It generates the Flex code that developers use as the basis to develop the required logic using Adobe’s Flash Builder as the development tool. Whereas Microsoft Blend and SketchFlow allows for a mix of code and design, Flash Catalyst is focused purely on design and the orchestration of interaction.

Alas, Adobe (like Microsoft) has applied market dampers of its own. For all the benefit Flash Catalyst offers designers when engaging with users early in the requirements process, the solution does not currently support round trip editing. Once the interaction design has been created in Flash Catalyst and the code generated for editing in Flash Builder, it is no longer possible for the designer to make subsequent changes in Flash Catalyst. This means that any changes that occur after this point must be done by a Flex or Flash developer.

There are steps that can be taken to get around this limitation, but they are not ideal and require a lot more planning. For the design and UX community, this is a fundamental drawback in the iterative workflow that occurs between developers, designers and end user clients. Given that Adobe built its success on supplying tools for the design community, it's frankly surprising that the company has failed to provide support for an iterative workflow in Flash Catalyst.

Adobe is rectifying its mistake, but the damage has already been done. By rushing out a tool that lacked Adobe's traditional attention to the designer role and workflow, the company lost a certain amount of goodwill with its traditional audience. This has been an unnecessary and probably avoidable tarnish to their reputation.

About the Author

Bola Rotibi, research director and founder of Creative Intellect Consulting, has more 25 years of industry experience spanning engineering, software development and IT analysis. She is a high-profile and highly experienced analyst focused on software development technologies, processes and market trends. She has acted as an advisor to leading IT providers; to investment and education bodies; and to large (and small) IT user organizations in Retail, Manufacturing, Media, Government, Automotive, Financial Services, Telecommunications and consultancies. An experienced presenter, Bola is also regularly quoted in trade and business press in Europe, America and Asia Pacific.

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