Jakob Nielsen on AJAX

Sitepoint recently published an interview with Jakob Nielsen, in which he says that AJAX is basically “irrelevant for the vast majority of business web sites” but that “The very nerdiness of the name ‘AJAX’ gives [him] hope that it will be used for causes more worthwhile than those now characteristic of Flash.”

While I agree with the good doctor that we should avoid replicating the “skip intro” fiasco of early Flash development in AJAX (“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” said Marx – which would this be?) and that not all AJAX is goodness, I think the point needs to be taken more carefully than just declaring AJAX irrelevant. I’d put the emphasis on “the vast majority of business web sites.” The example Nielsen uses is drawn from research on institutional investors and how they use the “investor relations” section of the web sites of the comanies they are considering:

. . . when we tested a large number of investor relations sites, we found that advanced tools for plotting stock trends and financial numbers only confused most individual investors. A better alternative is to show the most important information in a static plot that’s been optimized by a good designer. (Yes, institutional investors in our test did use advanced visualization tools, but they did so on their Bloomberg terminals. On a company’s own IR site, they were looking for the CEO’s vision for the company’s direction.)

In other words, the reason that the advanced tools weren’t used is because the investors were looking for a different kind of information and experience. They needed a passively consumed, web 1.0, static text and carefully designed charts kind of experience – they needed brochureware.

AJAX may be irrelevant for the majority of business web sites, but it clearly has a primary role to play in web applications. (Of course, even on static, pre-composed sites, carefully deployed AJAX widgets which serve to reveal additional content, clarify or comment on the primary text, enable better search and filtering, etc would still be valuable in improving user experience). Nielsen himself concedes that “Some business sites that are used repeatedly include features for approximating software applications” – presumably the caveat would be that this category of business site does not make up the “vast majority.” While I suppose that’s true – the vast (numeric) majority of companies do seem to be stuck in the brochureware era – that hardly means it’s a condition anyone ought to accept.

1 Comment

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say web applications. Not that I want to inject myself into an argument with two doctors, but I believe that the problem is that people mix up the technology with the implementation.

    The underappreciated (ha ha) Flash intro was an implementation of the immature Flash technology. Unfortunately, the implementation became synonymous with the technology. As history has shown, Flash has gone on to be the foundation for a variety of applications that are pretty darn cool (e.g., Youtube and Google video).

    Flash technology solves a basic problem – how can we streamline content in a bandwidth-constrained model. Even with the rapid adoption of cablemodems, Flash remained relevant. The same will be true for AJAX. It is an immature technology that will be used in the future, because it helps alleviate usability problems. The first few implementations may be a bit rough, but I believe the future is bright.

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