Monday, April 13, 2009

    More Effective View Management in Web Pages

    One of the research scientists I work for and I have been going 'round and around recently about web desktops. In a web desktop you translate the traditional desktop view into a browser. For examples see Ext's web desktop and this actual web desktop OS. In question was how do you navigate between views of various applications in an efficient manner?

    The good professor drew a distinction between how a traditional web application represents a set of views vs. how a desktop represents a set of views. In the traditional web application a set of views is often represented using tabs. You have a tab for each view of the application. Google has taken this idea to the extreme. Consider Google Docs. In Google Docs when you want to open a new document, you open a new tab. You can keep opening new documents (and consequently new tabs) until you have a bazilion of them, at which point navigation becomes a nightmare.

    On the other hand, you have how a traditional desktop represents views: new views are organized on the "start bar" (forgive the Windows-centric frame of references) with icons. Each icon may have some text and an image to represent it. When you mouse over a given icon you get a tooltip which provides you more information.

    The question then becomes how do you find a particular view when you have many views open?

    In the web application you may be lucky enough to have individual titles on each tab, but barring that, you have to click on each tab and work your way through potentially all of them before you find what you want.

    In a desktop, though, you often can pick out the view that you want simply by glancing at the images in the icons. At the very least, this will narrow your search down. You can then rely on the titles of the icons in question to further narrow the choices. If you're forced to, you can obtain the tooltips for each icon. Your ultimate last step is to look at each view individually. However, looking at each view individually isn't as bad as looking at each tab as you've already excluded some views out of hand because of the images, titles and tooltips. At the very least, you're certainly going to be looking through fewer views.

    Quite clearly the desktop way of searching through views is more effective.

    There are other factors to be considered as well. The start bar is static across all views. Being part of the default view of the OS it doesn't go away. You never (or rarely) lose your navigation between views. The same cant' be said with web applications.

    Further, the start bar only shows the views that are active. If a list of all possible views is desired, you can click on the actual start button to obtain it. A traditional link list shows all possible views, not just the ones that have been accessed during the current session.

    Clearly a more effective way of switching views in web applications is needed.

    I propose a tool that adheres to the following rules:

    1. Each view will be represented by an image, a title and a tooltext
    2. A space for all active views will be set aside on the page
    3. A list of all possible views can be called for but is not in available by default
    While I'm not a proponent of recreating the desktop environment in a web browser, the above idea would be truly powerful in a web application where many views can coexist.