Monday, August 13, 2007

Practicability of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) and Web 2.0 for Small Organizations

As an Information Architect there are many unanswered questions related to RIAs and Web 2.0 that I always confront on message boards, email groups, or during personal discourses. Does my company need to incorporate RIAs and Web 2.0? What is there in for me? When do I need to use RIAs and Web 2.0? Is it going to be cost effective for my organization? Does my organization really need it? The questions are numerous but the answers are very few or very vague because not everybody understands and comprehends the complicated technological definitions and jargons. People are more interested in simpler explanations and about the impact of these terms in their lives, organizations, and work rather than knowing what they are.

Even if you are hearing RIAs and Web2.0 terms for the first time do not go berserk, wild, or upset. And if you were fortunate enough to have already heard of them but never understood what they were? – No worries, believe me, it is not rocket science. RIAs and Web 2.0 have become the buzz words on internet and corporate. Everybody from IT field, large organizations, and small organizations is going crazy and talking and writing about it. Whether you are reading a technology magazine or looking at the news on the internet or attending IT conferences around you, you are invariably going to confront with these terms.

This emergence is confusing for small organizations that do not have their in-house IT strategy team to explain and to guide them to take a decisive path. These small organizations have their websites made and maintained by external IT vendors. Such organizations are confused, and apprehensive about the affect and adoption of these technologies and concepts for their websites or web applications. There are two reasons for this fear and bewilderment – One, they do not know what they are; two, they do not know whether they need to adopt these for their organization or not? This article is an attempt to explain the meaning and relevancy of these technologies and concepts to small companies and organizations.

Before we go and discuss about the practicability and consequence of RIA and Web 2.0 for small organizations let us look in brief as to what actually do they mean?

According to wikipedia:Rich Internet applications (RIA) are web applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications. RIAs typically transfer the processing necessary for the user interface to the web client but keep the bulk of the data (i.e maintaining the state of the program, the data etc) back on the application server.”

Does this definition go over your head? Here is an analogy. This is a story about a departmental store (as an application server), your helper (internet protocol), your house (as client or desktop), and you as the user. You have a helper at home and assume that you have nothing to cook in your kitchen and need various things to cook. The rule is that your helper can bring only one item at a time for your kitchen from the departmental store. This obviously increases your task time because every time your helper goes and processes your request he takes time. You complete the task but take more time. Also, since the helper can get one item at a time you are not able to see the other food options available at the departmental store. Had all the options been presented to you upfront you would have made better choices and decisions about the food you cooked and produced better recipes.

Similarly, RIAs present more options upfront with better interaction models to allow users to interact easily, and take decisions faster and accurately. RIAs allow more data to be downloaded from server on your desktop, process more data using desktop’s computational power, and display results quicker because processing is happening on the desktop itself and not on the server. It also provides more interaction options to fiddle with the interface which are not provided by traditional internet applications. RIAs are capable of doing whatever a desktop application can do. The space between desktop and web application is decreasing and has started to disappear after the emergence of RIAs. Certainly, this makes RIAs the call of the hour for many organizations.

RIAs have some similar and some different attributes than traditional web applications.


Traditional Web Application

Connected to the network

Connected to the network

Processing is distributed at the client side and server side

Processing happens only at the server side

Access local hardware (e.g. hard drives, CPU)

Does not access local hardware

Business logic is shared at the client side and server side (it made the application look intelligent and fast)

Business logic is at the server side and is slow to interact with

Has more room for creating animate effects

Very less opportunity to provide animate effects

Some of the tasks that definitely can be improved using RIAs are:

  • Shopping using shopping cart metaphor
  • Form completion with lot of text fields
  • Drag and drop of items or information for creating different arrangements
  • Movement of elements around the screen - Jigsaw puzzle type tasks
  • Display of dependencies or results using sliders - dashboards
  • Filter lot of information to narrow down choices using real time filtering
  • Only a part of a page needs to be updated

In short RIAs provide:

  • Richer, intuitive, and interactive interfaces by providing more options and information upfront. Some of the examples of the functionality are:
    • Drag and drop items in shopping cart, or configure laptops, cars, etc. and get the feedback for price, configuration, and availability instantly.
    • Present variable dependencies visually in more interactive ways using RIAs. View the effect of one variable on the processes and other variables in real time using sliders, etc. as control. (For e.g. how the 20% increase in production of ore in a mine affects the whole transport system, costs, and the inventories?)

  • Less response time for the system to provide feedback because most of the processing happens at user’s desktop and the user gets instant results. Gone are the days when users wait eternally for a web page to get refreshed and the information to load. An example of fast response time is:

§ View the adjacent areas in the map instantly without getting the screen to be refreshed because those areas are already downloaded on the machine.

  • Make effective use of server power by decrease in server load as RIAs allow more processing to happen at the client site. Get more machines connected to the same server because RIAs decrease the server load and uses client’s processing power.

Some live sites using RIAs are:

More online demos

Web 2.0 is not a technology but a vision where internet is seen as a space of participation and collaboration. It is can also be considered as a phenomenon where information is not static but is dynamic and continuously changing and getting modified by the users. Unlike Web 1.0 where the information flow was primarily unidirectional i.e. Web à Users, Web 2.0 allows bidirectional flow of information Web ßà User. I call it Pushing and Pulling of the information on the web. The bidirectional flow allows the user to customize, create, modify, delete, and share information with the world in unique ways.

Pushing: It is the flow of information from the users to the Web. The richness of information on Web 2.0 increases as more and more people from diverse background participate and share their knowledge with the world using blogs, wikis, creating tag clouds, sharing their stories, photographs, etc.

Pulling: It is the flow of information from the Web to the users. Web 2.0 enables the users to pull information from various resources and also customize it in unique ways based on their preference using live feeds such as Atom and RSS.

Apart from allowing users to push and pull the information the other interesting feature of Web 2.0 is content segregation. Users can classify content by using tags and can create tag clouds. Tags are collaboratively generated open ended labels to categorize content. The collaborative tagging helps them to find and recognize the information much faster and accurately because the information matches to their mental models.

Giving so much of power in user’s hands is the key feature of Web 2.0 and this creates the feeling of participation and collaboration among the users. Thereby, it differentiates itself from Web 1.0 by making everybody a stakeholder of the new age phenomenon.

Web 2.0 opens up the new doors for innovation and creative thinking. Organizations need to think of strategies whereby they can increase their business by leveraging upon the knowledge of users using the internet. The internet user base is seeing a rapid growth. As of June 30th, 2006, over 1.04 billion people use the Internet according to Internet World Stats.

Some of the examples of Web 2.0 are:

1. Wikipedia: Online encyclopedia managed by the users through collaboration and participation. Wikipedia had just twenty thousand articles when they started; today they have more than five million articles in different languages. They could build such a huge database only by adopting Web 2.0 concept where users are adding, and editing articles on the basis of participation and collaboration.

2. A unique way of storing your “Favorites” or “Bookmarks” with the world. It also allows sharing and discovering what others have bookmarked. The highest number of bookmarked pages surface on the top.

3. Digg: Users rank stories submitted by other users. The stories are ranked and displayed accordingly on the site.

4. Reddit: Users can post links here and these links are ranked by other users. Users can comment and discuss the links.

5. Craigslist: Content is managed by the users. They post the content themselves and decide whether the content posted follows the community norms.

6. World of Warcraft (WoW): WoW is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Users play the games by participating and grouping with other players or playing against them.

7. Amazon: A site which has made a wonderful use of user preferences, reviews, feedback, and wishlists to sell the products online. For e.g. a search for a book tells the user what are the other books bought by the users who looked for the searched book.

8. Blogs: A unique way to share and present your ideas on the web. Blogs make every user a journalist and provide him a platform to communicate his thoughts to the world. Write about your personal life, society, food, etc. or just share your pictures. The opportunities are infinite.

9. RSS or Atom feeds: Customize your website or page by feeding content from news sites, blogs, and other sites that you are interested in by managing feeds. Or share your own feeds with the world.

10. Radio: Allows the user to customize his stations using the tag chosen by the user. The radio keeps track of all the users who have selected a particular (for e.g. hard rock) tag and tries to predict their music listening behavior based on their past behaviors - which song they liked, skipped, banned, etc. and provide filtered music. It also records the music played on other mp3 players on the desktop to predict the user taste and feeds the songs similar to his taste.

11. Create your personalized pages: My yahoo, Google Personalized Home, etc. provide the opportunity in user hands to pull in the information that they are interested in and leave the rest.

Do I need it?

Let’s jump back to the apprehensions and confusions of Web 2.0 and RIAs.

Web 2.0 is a holistic picture of interaction between the users i.e. establishing a platform for collaborative communication and participation for exchange of ideas and thoughts amongst all the users of the site, whereas RIAs are about providing interesting interaction models to a single user.

RIAs should be implemented only after exhaustive user research, thorough task analysis, and developing detailed interaction models otherwise it would be a disaster for the users and the organization. Web 2.0 on the other hand should be adopted if and only if you want the controls of your site in the hands of the users. However, few parts of the site could be made open for the users initially as an experiment and later on can be expanded to include the whole site.

Implementing RIAs change the interface interaction model, while implementing Web 2.0 changes the website interaction model.

Consider the following criteria to decide the need of your organization:

  1. Purpose of the site
  2. Number of users of the site
  3. Kind of tasks that users perform on the site

1. Purpose of the site: What do you want to achieve from the site? A successful organization has a clear and focused vision about the goals it wants to accomplish and achieve from the site. The primary goals of a site depend on company’s business objective and the domain of business. Some of the primary* purposes of the site could be:

· Informatory Site - Product and Company Information (Static content)

· News and Events Site (Regular update of content)

· E-commerce Site (Shopping Carts, transactions, etc.)

· Wikis Site (Collaborative and Participatory)

· Transactional and Dynamic Data Rich Sites (Banks, Insurance, Finance, Share Market, etc.)

· Intranets (Organization’s Internal Network)

· Configurable Products Sites (Laptops, Computers, Golf Kits, etc.)

· Map Services (High Level Interactivity)

· Gaming (Collaborative and Participatory)

· Blogging (Collaborative and Participatory)

· Photosharing (Collaborative and Participatory)

*(The list given is not comprehensive but indicates some of the possible examples)

The goals and primary objectives of a site decide the technology to be used. The cost of the technology platform for a small and simple site is not really significant but as the complexity of the site and the tasks to be performed by the users increase, the costs can become significant. For example, Amazon - website with high complexity and a very high user base, was able to cut technology expenses by 25%, from $ 71 million to $ 54 million just by migration to Linux platform over others. (CNET news)

The crux is to understand the utility and to find an unambiguous and clear purpose of the site if you do not have one yet.

Number of Users: Number of users also defines the model that an organization can adopt. A site with a large user base can leverage upon its users to add, filter, and value to the site content. Having large user base ensures inclusion and representation of users from different domains and strata of the society, wide range of similar and conflicting opinions, and wide range of demographics of the users. Thereby, such a site can get the users to work for:

  • Content development (Wikipedia)
  • Content Segregation-Tagging (, flickr, Google image labeler, etc.)
  • Writing reviews for the products (Amazon reviews)
  • Software Development (

There are many innovative and interesting ways to make the users work in the right direction for your organization. One interesting example is Image Labeler by Google ( Google is very much aware of its large user base and therefore could invent a tool like Google Image Labeler. This tool allows the users of Google to label the ocean of images residing in Google’s server. Google has converted image labeling into a fun game by allowing two users to label the images. On one hand having two players tagging the image simultaneously ensures correct labeling and matching of mental models. On the other hand the time restrictions and scoring adds element of challenge and fun to it. The feeling of challenge and fun is very important for the success of any game. No wonder Google’s tool is working pretty well and more and more people are spending their precious time to work free for Google. It is a perfect example of using Web 2.0 to get work done by the users for free by creating collaborative environment which otherwise would have cost Google millions of dollars had they asked their staff to label it.

Having a relevant and segregated content helps the users to find the information that they are interested in quickly. (For e.g. filtering the information using tags of their interest.)

A site with a smaller user base should be wary of this approach because the users in this case are not the actual and true representatives of all the internet users. Contributions by a small user base might not be generic and could be biased because there are not enough users to neutralize or correct a radical or pre-determined content.

Kind of tasks that the users perform: The tasks that the users perform on the site not only define the interaction models and behaviors of the interface but also the underlying architecture and technology to be used. Better technology brings high performance, high efficiency, and high level of satisfaction by making the task intuitive and simpler for the users.

A site with complex and complicated tasks require better interfaces for their flawless and smooth completion. Such site requires high end technology (for e.g. RIAs) to make the interface work seamlessly for the users and to provide high level of user experience. However, a site with simple and straight tasks does not need to unnecessarily invest too much into high end technology, unless the organization has a budget for it.

Having a high end technology however, does add value by providing interesting interaction models for simple and mundane tasks and making them more interesting. Therefore, companies need to strike a balance between functionality and richness of interaction models for the tasks to optimize the user experience. Having a technology in hand might prompt the designers to add a lot of unneeded richness to the interface. How to make a task completion process a positive user experience without overdoing and adding unnecessary confusion is to be understood. Too much of everything is bad and this holds true everywhere.

It is the responsibility of organizations to understand their business objectives and user’s needs to adopt and integrate these technologies and concepts to provide their users a memorable user experience.

Who is a Usability Professional?

edThere has been a perpetual acrimonious debate about the best educational background for a Usability professional. Who would be the best fit as a User Experience Designer so that he could do the job with perfection and finesse - is something which has perplexed everyone? As the usability discipline is its nascent stages, both the companies and the aspirants for this role are finding it hard to do justice with the quality of work. Here are my thoughts on this.

I hold no vengeance against anyone while writing this. I am writing just as a usability practitioner. You may agree or disagree with my thoughts. And disagreement sets off discourse, which is healthy for an intellectual to grow.

Majority of the entrants that we see in the field of usability are coming from three disciplines: Software, Design, and Psychology. Let me discuss each one-by-one.

“I am a developer, leave it to me. I know the technology. That's my job.” Would you let him to do the usability job? I would not leave it to a developer. A developer is someone in India who is an engineer (most of the times). Irony is that there is no guarantee of him is a computer engineer. Which implies, that he is not even strong in what he is supposed to do? He just knows some tools which can be learnt by anybody. TCS/Wipro/etc.. have a huge pool of employees who are into software development and have never attended any engineering college.

Knowing and being well-versed in a tool is skill, which can be learnt with guidance and training. Someone with time in hands and basic intellect needed for the tool could work with it easily. We all are aware that web development programming does not require a very high level of intellect. It does not require any innovation in terms of programming it. Not hard to believe but lets accept this crude fact.

An engineer is never taught to invent or discover something new. Engineering is just an introduction to basic fundamentals needed to understand a particular area. It teaches processes and relationships including dependencies of various parameters of the processes. During my Chemical Engineering course, I was taught to design a distillation column based on the influx, etc. but I was never taught to design a non-existent column to process something which is from the mars. They never taught me that how the design of the column would change if all the users in the factory are females or 40+ years of age. As an engineer, I was good at understanding the process (only pertaining to my discipline) but faltered when I tried to see the process holistically in the context of the user.

And those engineers (developers) who think that designers are a misfit first need to understand the difference between a visual designer and a designer.

“I am a psychologist, I know the users, and I will do it.” I agree to this. No-one can understand users as psychologists do. After all they have spent their lives understanding them. However, the flip-side is that they are bad at design process. They are never taught to design a non existent product or User Interface. They can figure out user’s motivations, aspirations, goals, tasks, etc. with precision but they would not be able to design something based on their findings. How would they design as it has never been their job? They are a misfit to design.

A new application design project does not only require understanding of the user but also to build the design around the findings. They would falter and fall if forced to design. They can fine tune an application, task flow, or a process based on their findings but they could never start adesign from scratch and nowhere. Also, psychologists tend to be more conservative to learn about technology because that has never been their forte and their background is primarily arts or anthropology.

Who will do it then?

Let’s now talk about designers. What do they learn in their design education? Design education teaches to design products that are non-existent. It teaches the methodology of design rather then concentrating on the tools. A designer is taught to design from nothing by following a process which places user at the centre of the process and thinking. Designers are taught to think out of the box and come up with creative solutions. Above all designers not only learn the process but also how to present the ideas in the most effective and aesthetic ways. Throughout their course they innovate new ways to present their ideas. For e.g. I during my design study submit my work samples at the back of playing cards. Play the cards and read about what I did in my last semester. Not that it was a great concept because I never evaluated its economic value but it was definitely out of the box concept. Never during my engineering course could I think of submitting my assignment on a deck of cards.

Design education opens the mind and senses to look at things from a fresher perspective which people are unaware of before. It opens our mind and teaches us to innovate and refine. You start seeing problems in small-small things around you and start critiquing about it. And this is what is exactly needed as designer. Products, user interface or even a process – all need in-depth study of users and context and include removing the difficulties and undesirable interferences. Designer has the capability and capability to design a non-existent product by sensing the need of the market by understanding user requirements.

In India, master of design courses at IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) are apt for this profession because they admit students from engineering and architecture discipline. Some people object to admission of engineers in design courses, however, this objection is not justifiable at all. It may be justifiable if we talk about pure design but when it comes to User Interface or Product Design, we cannot overlook technology. And I think an engineer would comprehend and absorb technical concepts faster and better than others. Having both engineering and designing background give the designer an edge to ideate, conceptualize, and materialize the design into something which is mass useful, usable, and scalable with high degree of retention.

Fortunately, in India most of the design schools have really good designers to fit in the usability role and meet the demands of the market. But quality is costly so better be ready to pay for it.

“Why we love to be Loved!!”

User Experience - The 21st Century Way of Winning Customers!!

Have you ever wondered why do you like to sit and sip a cup of coffee at Barista and Café Coffee Day even when it is expensive? Have you ever thought why a dinner in a 5-Star restaurant is costlier than your neighborhood food outlet?

Despite the heavy damages we incur on our pockets, we still want to go to these outlets. Why? Because, we are engaged in an experience – According to Macromedia, “Experience is a series of memorable events that engage the consumer in a very personal way”. The phenomenal experience that we get at these places while doing trivial things makes the interaction with the business feel special. The experience is what differentiates Barista from a local Chai shop and a 5-Star restaurant from a local Dhaba.

Great experiences are hard to quantify, but we all know when we are having them. They are the memorable events that give shape to our lives. Creating a positive experience is difficult but not an impossible task if we are well aware of our user. In fact in the era of highly competitive market and plethora of brands and products, user experience has become a key differentiator and value builder for organizations.

NSTAR is the largest Massachusetts-based (USA), investor-owned electric and gas utility, with revenues of approximately $3 billion and assets totaling approximately $6 billion. More than 900,000 NStar Electric customers found something astonishing about their electric bill in Mar, 2007. For the first time in a generation, NStar had comprehensively revamped the design of the bills by following a yearlong, $2 million process that included convening eight focus groups, reviewing 70 other utility bill formats, and executives listening in on hours of live calls from customers complaining about confusing bills.

Understanding Users

Users are always interested in fulfilling their needs and finding solutions to their everyday problems. They are least interested in organizational structures, businesses, delivery modes, sales channels, products, and services until there is a need. Nothing wrong doing that, after all they are the ones shelling out money from their pockets. Usefulness and Usability are the main attributes that they seek in a product, service, or system but subconsciously they also desire emotional needs fulfillment. Users no longer buy a product; they buy experience built in and around the product.

When the user decides to buy a product, service, or solution he interacts through one of the sales channels: Physical Store, Website, Call Center, Interactive Voice Response System, etc. A business with more number of channels requires extra care and attention at each channel to provide similar rich experience to the customer. Customer interaction at a channel displays his optimism and enthusiasm for a brand but when confronted with a negative experience, expectations crash evoking mental confusion and discomfort. Discomfort results in cognitive dissonance which is a mental distress as a result of conflicting thoughts.

User Experience Design ensures that the coherence and consistency are maintained across various sales channels to avoid fragmented or disjointed experience. It believes in providing a seamless and integrated experience across channels.

Understanding UXD

User Experience Design (UXD) is a culmination of various disciplines including architecture, interior design, interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, visual design, instructional design, psychology, and user centered design.

User Experience Design puts the user at the center of the business. The user becomes the focal point of the business and the whole interaction framework is built around the user. Since the design process advocates considerable user research, designers can build compelling user’s mental models and therefore successfully embed the future needs to make the architecture scalable by predicting user’s future behavior and trends. Such products have considerably increased market retention time with decreased number of iteration cycles, thereby, decreasing the costs of development and maintenance significantly. Also, since the product is made for the user the adoptability and reliability increase and overall experience becomes more rewarding.

However, implementing user experience design is easier said than done. It requires a thorough research to understand the user. The qualitative side of the research caters to user’s needs, behavior, motivation, aspirations, desires, and future trends. The quantitative side deals with user’s demographics, earnings, expenditures, budgeting, costing, etc. The important part is to understand the qualitative side and building the solution that satisfies the needs.

Business is about users and not technology

Technology is growing at a fast and furious pace. It has been increasingly becoming an intrinsic part of products, services, and systems, thereby making interactions with them extremely complicated and more difficult to use. Complexity decreases ease of use and increases learning curve for the users. In such a demanding scenario it is necessary to focus on user experience design to make the users happy by making relevant, easy to use, usable, and useful products, services, and systems.

Whether it is an e-commerce website or a banking web application, the complexity in the IT solutions environment has grown manifolds. After the advent of Rich Internet Applications (RIA) and Web 2.0 users have increasingly started to demand highly intuitive and interactive environments. They desire more and more control in their hands and on the interface

UXD removes interaction bottlenecks and delight the users. It reinforces the use of user driven solution rather than a technology driven approach. UXD is not a cool interface design with animated graphics but it is designing better information architecture, better taxonomy, and a compelling user interface. It also influences overall architecture, development strategy, and selection of platform and technology from user centric perspective.

UXD aligns business goals and user needs to form a win-win relationship between the user and the business. It achieves a satisfying, loyal and trustworthy relationship by understanding business needs, user needs, technology constraints, information flows between systems-users-business, task analysis, etc. The process helps in building comprehendible business logic and intelligence in the system. It takes off the mental load from the user by leveraging upon system and technology capabilities. Organizations therefore reap more profits with high level of user satisfaction.

Most of the organizations have identified the value of UXD. No wonder, technology giants like Microsoft and IBM talk about increased user experience for SharePoint Server 2007 and WebSphere respectively.

Research found that investments in the user experience can deliver as much as 250% Return On Investment (ROI) in online commerce applications and significantly lower the cost of deploying enterprise-packed applications. UXD solutions are user driven rather than technology driven. The process and philosophy of UXD remain the same irrespective of the technology.

Winning customers

It is wonderful to be treated special. We all desire special treatment from our friends, relatives, peers, etc. and even the business that we interact with. When a business acknowledges our individualism our self esteem increases, confidence grows and we start loving the business because it understands and values us as an individual. Our trust and loyalty increase for them as we get more and more respect and attention. We get the sense of being loved and cared.
So, what is happening here? We are going through a highly personalized positive experience and we want to go through it again and again. True, we love to be loved.

What is simple???

Read an essay "Simplicity is Highly Overrated" ( simplicity_is_highly.html) by Norman and penned down my thoughts. Would like to know your thoughts as well

Norman writes: "Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity."

Is this true of the iPod? The iMac?

Going way back, Apple/Mac users have been willing to pay more for simplicity and elegance. Before the iPod, Mac users were a relatively small, niche community with unusual brand loyalty. But the simplicity/elegance /design approach has caught on in a much bigger way with the iPod.

Norman opens up an interesting debate, but he has mostly passed over thorny issues such as: design values across cultures (say, Korea vs. U.S. vs. Scandinavia) ; and whether consumers in fact don't use the features that initially attract them (it sounds like that's what Don Norman believes).

I believe Norman is mixing complexity with features. More features don’t mean complex designs. Designs can be simple even for a product with numerous features. They do not need to be intimidating to the users. Elegance and aesthetics do not mean fewer features.

Features and functionalities could be either placed on the skin or could be embedded in the product using the graphical interface. If a designer wished, he could embed all the features in the soft graphical interface instead of physical interface (on product’s skin) but this would make the interaction very frustrating for the user. The decision on how many feature to be made physically available and how many virtually is very critical to the product’s success. Some of the deciding factors that I could think of are:

- Criticality
- Frequency of Usage
- Ease of Usage
- Context of Usage

Criticality: Critical features such as “emergency stop”, “on”, “off”, etc. need to be easily accessible and should be made available on the surface of the product. Embedding them into virtual interface is not certainly a good idea. An example could be a digital SLR where all the features are made available physically for quick access. Mining for a feature in a digital SLR would result in losing a great shot. Similar example is the easy access camera button for mobiles for the same reason. Imagine designing a trigger of a gun using a virtual interface. Sounds stupid? Right, because it is a highly critical feature of the product. In such cases even if the product looks intimidating designers cannot embed the features in virtual interface because these features are critical.

Frequency of Usage: If a feature or function is to be used frequently, it is better to bring it to the top or make it a default. It is advantageous to give such features some physical form for easy access and manipulation. For e.g. when you roll over your finger on ipod it decreases or increases the volume by default because it is the frequently used feature and hence pushed up the feature list. Another example is the scroll wheel of blackberry to scroll through the inbox and mails. Since the primary feature of blackberry is to provide quick access to mails for executives on the move who keep getting hundreds mails a day – checking and replying to messages – imagine their life without the scroll wheel. The reason is the frequency of usage of the feature.

Ease of Usage: Some feature controls are easier to use in one form than the other. What is easier – scrolling down with stylus or a wheel? What if we replaced scroll wheel by a physical slider in a phone. Sony P990i has stylus and virtual scroll bar which is touch sensitive but I use physical scroll-wheel because of the ease of use. Same logic applies to volume control, using the wheel which is easier to hold and control. I have seen my friends with touch sensitive phones to make use of physical keypad and avoiding the virtual one until really needed. I think the reason for this is again the ease of use and haptic response which makes the user comfortable. Similarly, most of the laptops have volume control buttons made available upfront on the keyboard though it is neither a critical feature nor a very high frequency task in most of the cases.

Context of Usage: Products used in situations which demand quick action by the user have to have most of the features designed in physical form (even intimidating) . Products which we use for leisure can be made aesthetically appealing by embedding the functionality in the virtual interface of the product because the user has all the time to mine in for the features.

Underwater diving equipments or devices for astronauts should have large buttons to take care of the heavy gloves and cumbersome clothing. Also the access to the features cannot be buried inside the interface. It should be made readily available to the users.

Based on the factors described above I guess designers can segregate the features which they want to embed physically or virtually in the product. A right balance of both is a definite success of the product. It is not just about more features that prompt the user to buy in; it has other parameters as well.