Web Interface

   By Marc Pelteret
The Web and cellphone interfaces allow users to view and manipulate their lists and various other features of the system. In addition to this, the Web interface is the starting point for new users, who must use it to sign up for the service and create and set up their lists.

The aim was to create an interface that is interactive and simple and quick to use. To do this, the AJAX Web development technique was used.

+ About AJAX

About AJAX

AJAX is not a technology; it is, in fact, several technologies that have been grouped together to form an approach to Web application development. As Jesse James Garrett explains, it incorporates:
  • standards-based presentation using XHTML and CSS;
  • dynamic display and interaction using the Document Object Model;
  • data interchange and manipulation using XML and XSLT;
  • asynchronous data retrieval using XMLHttpRequest;
and JavaScript binding everything together.

Classic Web application model AJAX application model
The classic Web application model vs the AJAX application model


Classic Web applications are based on a multi-page interface model. In this model (left), a user action on a Web page triggers an HTTP request, which is sent back to the server. The server performs some actions based on this request and then returns a Web page to the client, which replaces the original page with the one it was sent.

AJAX uses a different model (right), namely that of a single-page interface. When the user triggers an event that leads to communication with the server, rather than re-loading the entire page to display the results of that interaction, changes are made to elements within the page. In this way the user's interaction with the Web application is asynchronous – it is independent of communication with the server.

The core reason for AJAX coming into being is interactivity, which is closely associated with usability. An increased level of interactivity has positive effects on a user's perceived satisfaction, effectiveness, efficiency, value and overall attitude towards a Web site.

Some example Web sites that use AJAX:
  • Google Suggest – as you type into the search box, the system offers suggestions in real-time on how to complete what you are typing.
  • Google Maps – its pan and zoom functions adjust your view using AJAX.
  • Live Search – the image search of Microsoft's Live Search makes extensive use of AJAX.
  • Panic Goods – this Web site sells t-shirts. You select the t-shirts you like by dragging them to your shopping cart at the bottom of the page.
  • LiveMarks – this site allows you to watch bookmarks in real-time as they are added to del.icio.us, a social bookmark Web site where users can maintain their bookmarks and share them with others.
  • AjaxTrans – this system translates from one language to another as you type, sentence by sentence.
+ Design and Implementation

Design and Implementation

The following are the system's major features:
  • A login system that is implemented entirely in AJAX. It uses the server to verify the user's password, but otherwise manages the user's login itself.
  • Users can modify several options that are specific to them. In particular, they can choose their "favourite shops" and "trusted users".
    • Favourite shops are shops where the user usually buys goods from. These shops can be associated with a list or item. Most people will buy from only a few shops, so rather than having them search through all the shops in the system each time they add a list or item, they select only those they are most likely to use.
    • Trusted users are other users that the user might permit to access their lists. The aim of this feature is the same that of favourite shops: to save the user time by shortening their list of choices when adding a list.
  • Users can have more than one shopping list. The Web interface allows them to manage their lists.
  • Lists have access rights. The owner of a list can choose which trusted users may access their list and may assign rights to those users.
  • Each user has a number of special lists. The aim is to save the user time: instead of manually entering a new item that they have added before, they can simply select it from one of the special lists. These lists are:
    • Favourites – items that the user often adds. The user maintains this list.
    • Previous items – a system-generated history of all items the user has previously added.
    • Deleted items – any items the user has added and then removed during their current session.
  • Each list item can have a note included with it and can be checked off as it is bought (When this happens, they are moved off the current list and into the item history). Items can also be marked in various ways:
    • Each item can be assigned a category to which it belongs and a shop from which it should be bought.
    • An item can be flagged as being private, so that only the user who added it and the list owner can see it.
    • A user might be unsure as to whether or not an item is needed, so they can tag an item as "uncertain".
  • Users can set reminders, which they can manage through both the Web interface and the cellphone interface. The idea is for users to be able to have the system remind them about tasks while shopping. For example, Pick 'n Pay allows customers to pay utility bills at its stores, so the user could set a reminder to settle the electricity bill while buying groceries.
  • Users can view, add and edit shop layouts. A shop's layout is used to order a list's items in by section while using the list on the cellphone. The aim is to help users locate items within the store.
The Web interface is a client-side application created using HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM) built into all browsers. It is a combination of hand-written code and functionality provided by the Yahoo! User Interface Library.

A simple prototype was built to test the technologies to ensure that they were adequate for the project and to get an idea of how they work. It also served to demonstrate an idea that wouldn't work. The initial plan was to make use of the drag-and-drop functionality provided by the Yahoo! Toolkit. However, while creating the prototype it was discovered that the interface became very slow when the drag-and-drop list contained a large number of items.

There were three rounds of design interviews during the project. Each session was highly constructive and yielded many good ideas that were used in the project.

The first round was user requirement gathering, where users were interviewed to determine what they required and wanted to see in a system like Cellphone Shopper. From these interviews and team brainstorming, list of features that would be included in the system was drawn up.

The cellphone and Web interfaces were then constructed. In order to test the interface designs, a focus group was organised – the second round of interviews. The group consisted of four volunteer Computer Science students, two from Masters and two from Honours, each with interaction design training. The idea was to have a group of "experts" scrutinise and critique the interfaces. The designs the group was shown were low fidelity paper prototypes which were drawn in Microsoft Visio.

The cellphone and Web interfaces were constructed over the three weeks following the second design interview. A third design interview was then organised to evaluate the results. Again, four "experts" evaluated the system. The Web interface that was presented was an interactive "shell". Most of the core pages were implemented and their major interface elements were present and could be interacted with. For instance, on the My Reminders screen the user could use a form to add a reminder and its details would be listed on the screen; this reminder could then be edited and its details would be updated on the screen immediately. The site had no back-end connectivity.

+ Evaluation

Evaluation

The Web interface was evaluated through user testing and heuristic evaluation.

The user testing was a direct observation evaluation, which yielded qualitative results. The users who were involved in the evaluation fell into one of three classes: 1. The interface "experts" who had been involved in the design phases earlier in the project. 2. People who are knowledgeable of computers and technology. 3. People who are considered computer novices. Eight users evaluated the system: three from the first class, two from the second and two from the third. The users were asked to perform a series of tasks and the author observed them, noting any problems they had while performing the tasks, as well as any faults that they discovered in the system. As they performed the tasks, they were also asked to interpret the system's feedback – for instance, what certain icons mean.

Before the actual evaluation began a pilot study was performed using two people. The aim to was to check that the users would understand what was being asked of them in the evaluation. The pilot study led to several changes to the evaluation questions and how the evaluation was performed.

Heuristic evaluation is a technique created as a way of structuring expert evaluation of an interface. The idea is that the experience of interface designers is condensed into a number of design heuristics against which the interface is evaluated by a usability expert. It was created by Jakob Nielsen, who proposed 10 general heuristics. During the evaluation, the expert examines the system and rates each heuristic using Nielsen's severity ranking scale.

Three users performed individual heuristic evaluations. All of them are Computer Science students; two are PhD students and third is a second-year Masters student. All three are working on projects that revolve around usability. They used Nielsen's heuristics and ranking scale in their evaluations.

As is to be expected, some users had more trouble using the interface than others. However, there were several problems that repeatedly cropped up. Some examples include:

The interface does not convey that it is communicating with the server and waiting for a response. This, and the fact that there was often a delay during this communication, meant that many of these users believed that they had not pressed a button or done something properly, and clicked the button again or began to re-do the operation. The "Add a new reminder" form has a field with the label "Name:". Several users mistook this to mean their name, rather than the name of the reminder. Some users tried to edit the date field of the "Add a new reminder" form, rather than use the calendar (accessed through the button beside the field) to select a date. The shop layouts screen was a big problem. The description text generally was not understood.

The user testing also uncovered a number of bugs, though none caused the system to be unusable. Both sets of evaluators were happy with the interface on the whole. Most of them liked its visual design and thought it generally functioned well.

+ Conclusions

Conclusions

The project proposal stated that I had two sets of tasks: To design and implement the Web-based end-user interface To perform user evaluations of the interface Both have been done over the span of the project.

The proposal also listed the following as the key success factors for the Web interface: The features specified for the system are fully implemented and function properly. Users consider the interface to have good aesthetics and be easy to use. The interface has good performance and can bear an acceptable workload. The majority of the key features proposed for the system as whole have been implemented. In addition to the proposed core features, several suggested by the users and evaluators were implemented.

The Web interface is by no means perfect, as the evaluations showed. Nor is it entirely bug free. However, its implementation is largely successful. Evaluations showed that most of the interface is easy to use and many of the evaluators commented on its good aesthetics.

Finally, though not thoroughly tested, the interface appears to perform well. Server delays are the only performance problem, and this could most likely be rectified by moving the back-end and interface on to a server outside of the UCT network.

+ Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

The interface was built using:

Aptana      Notepad++

Yahoo! User Interface Library (YUI)

> Show All Sections
< Hide All Sections