User Experience and the Platform War

EffectiveUI chief executive officer Rebecca Flavin examines how the ongoing "platform wars" effects user experience. Even with all the options in the hands of we designers, it's important to remember that users come first.

If there is one thing constant about the technology industry, it’s the fact that there is always a battle taking place. Whether it’s to dominate a platform or agree on standards, we are always evolving, and often debating over which direction is best. It’s imperative, however, that our focus on user experience not get lost in the crossfire.

[Editor's note: In the spirit of full disclosure, this look into the present state of UX is written by a member of the EffectiveUI team.]

Right now we are in the midst of what I call the “Platform War.” Apple-versus-Adobe hit a fever pitch this spring. By now we’re all more than familiar with why the iPhone, iPod, and iPad do not (and will not) run Flash. In April, Steve Jobs explained Apple’s stance (see Thoughts on Flash), creating quite a stir and prompting Adobe’s founders to respond (see The Truth about Flash). This isn’t likely to simmer down anytime soon.

Apple and Adobe’s high-profile battle has organizations in a state of confusion. Within companies, conversations are raging about what is best and if they need to make a trigger-happy decision to switch platforms, maintain, or move forward in a new direction.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the Apple-Adobe debate, it’s helpful to remember that their battle is not your battle. The true battle is to reach out to your customers, wherever they may be; figure out how users want to access services and then provide the tools and experiences that enable them to do that. At the core of this battle (no Apple pun intended), we don’t need to worry about the technology. We need to be concerned about creating a great user experience, and great UX is never just about the technology.

A step forward or a step back?

No one platform is ubiquitous, so we are seeing companies required to make choices to create one application that meets some customer requirements, or create two separate applications that reach everyone. For companies that want one application that offers a great user experience, we are forced to look at a matrix of ubiquity vs. user experience. Yet another battle! In some cases we have to compromise, or even take a step back in technology. Implementing HTML4 is fairly ubiquitous and can still offer a good experience with the right design expertise and user-centered approach.

Given the emergence of mobile devices and tablets, it’s becoming ever more risky to build a one-size-fits-all website. We need to think about specific devices, where the user experience will happen and develop accordingly. A user’s experience with a brand should transcend different devices and feel consistent without being exactly identical. In other words, the user experience should be tailored to the capabilities of the device and the context in which it is used.

Some companies will remove Flash from their main sites in an attempt to make them more appropriate for mobile devices, without actually creating a separate mobile site. That’s generally not the best solution for getting and keeping users, assuming Flash is contributing to positive user experience on the main site. Instead, we should develop a site specifically for mobile devices and tablets.

Options aside, it’s all about the user

The simple fact is no one will ever be completely pleased or accommodated with an application or website. Explorer or Chrome, Mac or Windows, Android or Apple scenarios abound—and likely always will. Different platforms provide different experiences and the right technology depends on the use case, scenario, and audience. Business requirements and the customer experience reign supreme.

Take EffectiveUI for instance: Flash is still our go-to technology when it comes to building applications for ubiquity across the Web and desktop. It’s great for creating rich, robust Internet applications that are heavy in design elements, and is an option for Android-based devices given Adobe’s investment in the Android platform and Flash Player 10.1.

However, we are also heavily investing in HTML5 and pushing it to its limits in development. Right now, applications that require accessibility or a focus on SEO are best served by HTML. Silverlight is also great for media and design-heavy applications, Intranet applications where there is already a large .NET presence, and for apps targeting Windows 7 devices and Windows Mobile. iOS and Android OS are obviously best for their respective devices.

We now live in a multi-lingual world. Given that no platform focused on user interface excellence is entirely ubiquitous, we have to be flexible and develop deep skill sets across multiple platforms in order to create the best user experiences across the channels.

Moving forward

We mustn’t get stuck in postponed perfection or analysis paralysis. While your competitors may be taking a “wait-and-see” approach, now may be the best time to move forward in the face of uncertainty. In making the decision to develop for different devices, you may be required to determine which is more important: making things simpler and cheaper for IT, or providing customers with a better experience.

We’ve seen the investment in user experience pay off time and time again. In cost-justifying UX, IBM has found that “every $1 invested in usability returns between $10 and $100.” For more examples, here’s an EffectiveUI PDF on the ROI of UX.

At the end of the day, user needs are going to dictate which technology they want to interact with based on the devices they purchase and use. Both platforms will be around for a long time. Neither is going away anytime soon.

When a company comes to us and their first question focuses on which platform is the “right” platform, it’s the wrong question. The first question should be “Why?” Why do you want to create a specific application? What are your customers’ needs and goals? What business challenge are you solving? By placing an almost obsessive focus on customer needs and business goals—not just product features—the right technology simply appears. It might be Flash. Or HTML5. Or Silverlight. Or HTML4. Or the next big thing to enter the fray of a new Platform War.

About the Author

Rebecca Flavin

As a digital marketing and technology professional with 18 years of experience, Rebecca Flavin serves as EffectiveUI's chief executive officer where she is responsible for reinforcing the company's overall vision, user experience innovation, core values and strategic direction.

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9 Comments

  • Joshua Lay Reply

    So basically; pick the right tool for the job?

    It’s much like in programming. You pick the language that best suits what you want to implement. e.g. Perl may be “dead”, but it’s still the greatest thing for parsing text files.

  • Michael Ward Reply

    It really isn’t a battle between Apple and Adobe – just Apple passing the judgement that flash isn’t good enough for its mobile devices.

    The point of your article still stands, but lets not over dramatise the situation.

  • Jacob Creech Reply

    Interesting article.

    I’m curious to know more about the ROI of developing specific mobile sites.

    I’m sure it makes for a better experience, but sometimes I wonder if it is worth the development cost for a number of companies. Do you have any analysis on this?

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Andy Shield Reply

    Interesting read. I particularly like the statement:

    “We need to be concerned about creating a great user experience, and great UX is never just about the technology”.

    Everything is changing so rapdily, that there needs to be a focus on educating clients as to the importance of a consistent multi-platform customer experience.

    Inconsistency or a total lack of platform support is a very poor experience in itself for whichever user group(s) expects it.

  • Andrew Maier Reply

    Rebecca,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I certainly think we need more discussion around the technical details of user experience.

    Personally, I find it surprisingly difficult to decide between higher-level considerations. Recommending platforms such as Expression Engine over WordPress or Ruby on Rails (for purposes of prototyping their website/interaction) isn’t straightforward, because it makes up a large aspect of their resulting experience.

    This is a separate, but related issue to the HTML vs Flash debate. In the end, I see design as a “top down” initiative, whereas development is a “bottom up” one. Meeting in the middle will always be difficult, but it’s where innovation lives.

  • Gino Lardon Reply

    Device-dependent websites and applications are great. However, not every company can afford, has the time or focus to build one. Therefor, always start with optimizing the current site or app as much as possible independent from the capabilities of a devices and the user (accessibility). This universal design approach will guarantee a sufficient user experience for all.

  • tAsh Reply

    Why we always take example of Apple’s support of Flash, and the fact that flash is ubiquotous etc…

    the fact is 100% of 64-bit Winodws browsers (that is IE8 in short) does not support flash – and will not be – unless flash comes up with a newer version.

    So the essential premise of the article is not detailed enough- besides that, I think this is a great summarization,

  • Judd Reply

    Using HTML5 techniques to create responsive designs that scale and degrade gracefully seems like it will be more cost effective than the aforementioned option of developing multiple solutions per device/platform. Hard to say for sure though, and that also depends heavily on browsers’ adoption of new standards.

    I think your closing statement asking “why” is still the most important thing. Mobile browsing may indeed overtake desktop browsing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every website needs an “app” incarnation.

  • Rebecca Flavin Reply

    Hi everyone–I appreciate all the comments and the thoughtful insights that were sparked by my post – it’s always great to receive feedback. Thanks to UX Booth for providing a forum to continue this discussion.

    To address the analysis of ROI and developing different experiences for different platforms, we unfortunately do not have any quantitative hard number data. We have, however, observed this qualitatively and measured the impact as such.

    While it obviously isn’t possible for every company to afford multiple apps for multiple platforms, that is the ideal situation. My goal is to ensure the EffectiveUI team places the priority on creating a great experience, and not just focusing on the technology. The right technology presents itself when you know where you’re going. Don’t design for a tool. Design for the client and end-user in mind.

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