Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Better UX: application workspaces

[tweetmeme source=”KeithBluestone” only_single=false]Lately I’ve had some questions and thoughts about software usability, specifically in the area of desktop software personalization:   why do I have to care so much about where I compute?  

  • If I’m writing a book, why can’t I just sit down at any of my computers, open it in Microsoft Word, and work on it? 
  • Why are all my browser bookmarks and favorite sites different on each computer I log into?   If I install Firefox – or Internet Explorer — on a new computer, why do I have to go through and re-set all my favorite options and settings?  
  • When I install my favorite blogging software (Windows Live Writer), why do I have to re-create all of my blog accounts on the new computer?  And re-import a copy of my glossary (quick links)?  Why can’t I just “log in” and have everything set up the same, on every computer? 

And so on, down a long list of applications.  Why do we have to care so much about the where in computing, so often? 

Looking backwards

I think it’s part cultural artifact, part technological artifact, and part “chocolate ice-cream factor.”  The cultural aspect is that it’s always been done this way: why change?  The technological aspect is we simply don’t have well established frameworks and programming paradigms to provide usable identity-based support in our apps, especially desktop apps (“rich clients”).   The chocolate ice-cream factor is that people don’t realize how much easier it would make computing in their everyday lives.

imageChocolate ice cream factor: when people turn down choices simply because don’t realize how really good it can be — because they’ve never had it before; the status quo is good enough. Chocolate mixed with ice…  and cream?  Yeccch.

I coined this term in the late-1980’s after University Microfilms, where I worked as a software lead, spent $70,000 on a study by a high-falutin’ strategy consulting firm in Boston to tell them that no, people didn’t really want to read magazines on computers in gorgeous high-resolution, but “were fine with” a plain text transcription only (the existing format).  Eventually common sense prevailed… but still.  

“If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said ‘Faster horses.’ ”
— Henry Ford

So I say to the product management visionaries, CTO’s, and chief software architects of the land:  provide personalized workspaces in your applications. Don’t do it for me; do it for your users, who will thank you a million times over.

And do it to be competitive with web applications, who are rapidly eating your desktop lunch. 

“In other words, the desktop is simply the means by which a user loads a browser. It’s a gateway. The value is not in the desktop anymore. It’s in the browser, which is the new desktop, in terms of real functionality delivered.”
Google competes for the future; Microsoft, the past (CNET, October 2009)

Next-gen Windows?

MicrosoftMicrosoft could bestow this vision on the world by designing an application-based “virtualizable workspace” – say, in a next-generation version of Windows — which would transparently virtualize your documents.

Imagine logging on to any Windows 2012 desktop in the world and having Windows customized exactly like your personal home desktop theme!  Not to mention having your documents securely and transparently mirrored on the desktop and in your document folders.  If workspace-enabled client applications are installed on the local machine (FireFox, QuickBooks, whatever), they would behave exactly like they did on your home desktop.  Awesome!

OK, you can put the top of your head back on now.  Tell me this wouldn’t help Microsoft in the fight against the browser invasion…

Or Microsoft could innovate in the .NET framework arena, and marry user information (an authenticated user profile) with a filesystem proxy which writes to “a cloud.”  (See code snippet below.) No more local, file-based filesystem — or only by special request, via special API, or by advanced users.  For existing legacy apps, it might even be pretty easy to retrofit them into this new storage paradigm.

Aside: I saw recently Microsoft’s introduction of Windows Live MeshimageNow this is a particularly boneheaded example of Microsoft’s technobfuscation of useful features.    (I just made that word up especially for WLM.)  First of all, I, a 30-year veteran of technology, cannot understand without drilling into it what the hell is going on and what I really have to do to use it.  It’s all hidden behind marketbabble and hype.  Mesh??  I don’t need a mesh – I need my files and folders!  For a clean, clear-headed rendition of filesharing that really works, see Dropbox.com (watch the excellent 2 min intro video).

For the record, a primary definition of the word mesh is “something that snares or entraps.”  Nice.

imageI haven’t studied how Apple’s iOS conceptualizes application storage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if theirs is pretty close to the right way.  One thing is for sure: users of iPhones and the iPads never have to worry about a “filesystem.”

Microsoft, are you listening?

Design notes

Let’s think for a brief minute about how this vision might be realized, at the level of software design and architecture.

Remember who you're dealing withPersonalization is enabled by having an authenticated identity: at the very least, a currently logged-in user profile.

The application workspace is the stuff the user’s working on, whatever is produced by the application:  files, projects, documents, etc.  A “workspace” is an easily graspable paradigm for the user – read: better UX — as well as an architectural abstraction that works extremely well in software.

Imagine the joy of “logging into” any Microsoft Word installation, on any internet-connected PC, to find that Word has instantly configured itself with all your favorite options, toolbars, and settings!  Priceless.

Implemented properly in code, the workspace as a storage provider abstraction completely isolates and protects the application from the physical details of where the documents and settings are stored.

At the same time, the workspace concept opens up a world of flexibility: the user’s workspace can be stored in “the cloud” – pick one – or via a central corporate web service, in a database, or even on a local filesystem if needed.

In fact, it makes offline workspace access a snap, since a local workspace can be easily synced with a central master as needed.   It makes backup a model of simplicity, since the workspace is the unit of backup, not a whole bunch of disparate, messy files & settings.  Sigh…  good design makes everything easy.

But the net effect is that the design lets the user work efficiently wherever the app is installed,  just like the incredibly successful model of a web application.  I can’t help but think this would be a significant competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

FireFox, are you listening?

image
Now that’s a workspace

Executing a framework strategy

The problem with implementing personalization and location-independence in desktop apps is in the framework – or specifically, the almost complete lack of it.  There just aren’t built-in facilities to either Windows or .NET to do this kind of stuff.

The Microsoft .NET stack, as wonderful as it is,Microsoft .NET provides no additional built-in storage abstractions beyond those of the Windows file and folder.  Instead, each Microsoft developer or team must venture into the wilds of software-land and cobble together a custom implementation of the personalization and workspace concepts, involving both an identity model and a remote storage provider model. 

For one, it can be very expensive.  From my experience, it’s possible only in more well funded teams – that is, if Management in its infinite wisdom even decided it should be done in the first place.  Number two, the level of complexity in design and implementation is such that only the most technically elite teams could pull it off well, while maintaining commitments to project schedule.

For those companies and teams that can pull it off, they will reap the benefits of a “wow” factor from their users.  In addition, with the proper architectural guidance, a single implementation can be leveraged across an entire product portfolio.

It’s a compelling vision.

Some example code

A simple little example, where an “AppWorkspace” framework-style class implements .NET-compatible replacements for file and folder manipulation.  I imagine an authenticated user profile, attached to the current thread context, would be obtained by any of the available services out there, from Windows Live to OpenID.

// current practice = locally bound files
using (File f1 = File.Open(@"C:\MyStuff\mystuff.doc", FileMode.Create))

{

    // write user stuff to local file

}

 

// proposed concept: location-independence – no “C:”

using (File f2 = AppWorkspace.File.Open(@"mystuff.doc", FileMode.Create))

{

    // write user stuff to omnipresent “workspace”

}

Conclusions

Identity-aware, personalized, location-independent computing just plain old helps us get things done.   Because we don’t have to worry about where we’re computing, we – the users — can always focus on the task at hand: the document or blog post, the PowerPoint or the poem.

Today, legacy paradigms still haunt the modern desktop domain.  Until all applications can be effectively written in a browser (HTML 5, anyone?), there will still be a need for locally installed rich desktop applications.   As developers, we should implement truly personalized experiences, freeing the average user from having to think about physical location and – horrors!  a file system.  It’s just the right thing to do – it takes the user experience to a new level. 

And in case, there’s anyone alive today who does not understand that the new game in town is user experience (UX), then I have three words for you:  Apple Computer, Inc.   So then it’s decided:  let’s allow our users to log into any Internet-connected computer, and have their applications behave exactly as they did on the home machine.

Now that’s what I would call progress.

***

More reading and references

  • DropBox.comGoogle-esque in its clarity and simplicity.  And it just works beautifully!  I use Dropbox to sync files between about four or five PC’s.   Best of all, it’s free!
    “Dropbox allows you to sync your files online and across your computers automatically.”
  • Windows Live Mesh.  Microsoft’s new offering Confusing to me – if anyone has an experience to relate, please share it with us. 
    “Working on one computer, but need a program from another? No problem. Use Live Mesh to connect to your other computer and access its desktop as if you were sitting right in front of it.”
  • How "Windows Live" Is Obscuring Some Actually Good Products (LifeHacker, October 2010)
    “Microsoft has some cool products hiding behind ridiculously confusing names. Users of the very nifty  Live Mesh file and desktop syncing beta, for example, were told their service shuts down in March 2011. Where should they migrate? Windows Live Mesh, of course.   
    “Microsoft is emailing Live Mesh beta users and explaining how they can transition their files to Windows Live Mesh. It involves not a small bit of re-configuring the folders you want to sync, the settings you’d like for each synced folders, and waiting while your folders all move over to the new Windows Live Mesh servers….
    But it’s the naming, and duality of names, that puts people off—people including your Lifehacker editors, if I do presume to speak for most of us. The fact that somebody pulled the trigger on a mass user email saying, essentially, "Live Mesh is dead, so use Windows Live Mesh" is pretty astounding. To then require that users pull off what amounts to a manual transition of folders they wanted to set-and-forget for syncing is just salt in the weirdly worded wound.

Afterthoughts: design practices

In case there’s anybody still reading:  you have too much time on your hands, get a job!  Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts about how a team might go about designing a virtualization solution.  It’s not rocket science, but… 

A core best practice that I always try to follow in new designs and architectures is: don’t reinvent reality.   Software designs and architectures are best when they reflect the way things really are.   If you’re in the banking vertical, your domain of interest includes people, tellers, accountants, accounts, deposits, withdrawals, and so on.   It’s easy to express a banking solution in the same language;  in fact it’s a hell of a lot easier, since you the architect and your posse of developers didn’t have to come up with a whole new set of objects – which is what most teams do, more or less. 

No, in good design, types of items in real life typically map directly to classes in code-land.    Things that can happen in real life become methods in code.  It simplifies life for architects, developers, and testers:  basically anyone who has to work with code.   Everyone understands the code structure and its classes, because they’ve seen them all before – in “real life.”

In the case of application workspaces and personalization of desktop applications, “real life” says the user is truly one and the same person, no matter where she sits down (logs in).  The “identity-aware application” might reflect this by having a current user profile

Likewise, the user has – in general – one set of files and documents they’re working with:  this is the user workspace.   The workspace proxies the Windows filesystem, looking exactly like it, and enabling centralized, one-shop storage and retrieval of  user information (profile), preferences and configuration settings, and any documents or content items that the user was involved in creating.    Like web apps, it would seem that all file paths would have to be “root-relative,” and not refer to a specific physical directory; an exception would be thrown otherwise.

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