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The User Experience is the User Experience

Jakob Nielsen, among others, has remarked that "the network is the user experience." They're all wrong, and they're all right.

Browsing through yesterday left Nielsen's June 2000 predictions of sweeping change in the user experience loaded in my browser when I sat down at my desk this morning:

Since the late 1980s, hypertext theory has predicted the emergence of a navigation layer that would be the nexus of the user experience. Traditionally, we assumed that this would happen by integrating the browser with the operating system to create a unified interface for manipulating remote information and local files. It has always been silly to have some stuff treated specially because it happened to come in over a certain network. Browsers must die as independent applications.

It is counter-productive to have users suffer sub-standard user interfaces for applications that happen to run across the Internet as opposed to the local client-server environment. Application functionality requires more UI than document browsing: another reason browsers must die.

Silly, counter-productive: Sure. I've always thought so. But the tendency in the late 1990s was to assume that document browsing was exactly enough. And though the peculiar insanity of things like "Active Desktop" (which strove to make the Win95 desktop work just like the Web circa 1999) does seem to have passed, it remains true that the bias is toward the browser, not toward rich application-scope UIs.

Which is to say that Nielsen, in this old piece, is failing to heed his own advice. Users are inherently conservative: They continue to do what continues to work, which drives a feedback loop.

But more than that, he -- like almost everyone else I can think of, except myself -- is missing the single most important thing about modern computing life: People don't use the same computer all the time. Working from home, now, I frequently use two: My desktop, an OS X Mac, and my laptop, a Sony Picturebook running Windows 2000. In my most recent full time job (where I sometimes spent 12 hour days on a routine basis), I used two more systems: A desktop running Windows NT and a laptop running Windows 2000. And that's not even counting the Windows 2000 desktop I still occasionally use at home. (And would use more if I had an easy way to synchronize it with my Mac and my Picturebook.)

And so it's interesting to look at each of Nielsen's predictions as of June 2000:

  1. Amazon is healthier than ever, in no small part because "zero click payments everywhere" are no closer now than they were in 2000. (See [3].)
  2. Yahoo's network of services is healthier than ever, in no small part because people are less and less tied to specific machines. (See [3].)
  3. Websites know your preferences only insofar as you invest those with a particular services vendor/provider, like Yahoo or Google. That's actually a reflection of increasing network-centricity: These services are finally recognizing that people have lives that cross many machines.
  4. AOL is failing rapidly, but its proprietary messaging system is still going strong -- as are the proprietary messaging systems of Yahoo and Microsoft. Messaging aggregators like Trillian are still bleeding edge.

None of this is to say that I don't think the network is the user experience. He's sort of right about that -- or at least, he's right that it sort of should be, that things would work better if we made apps more network aware. After all, in the age of ubiquitous wireless, the network is spreading to places it's never been before. But what the 2005 situation reveals is that relatively low-impact solutions like using cell phone networks for instant messaging or logging-in to websites have trumped high-impact solutions like re-architecting the user experience to eliminate the web. Instead of using the increasingly ubiquitous broadband services to synch all our stuff from a networked drive, we're carrying around USB keychain drives and using webmail. Instead of doing micropayments, we're still living in a world of aggregated vendors a la Amazon and charity (Wikipedia) or ad-/sales-supported services (IMDB, GraceNote).

At a more fundamental level, we have to be mindful that we don't define "the network" too narrowly. Consider the old school term "sneakernet": Putting files on floppies to carry them from one person to another. It was an ironism -- sneaker-carried "networking" wasn't "networking", right? -- but it revealed a deeper truth: "Networking" describes more than just the stuff that travels across TCP/IP networks. At a trivial level, it also includes (mobile) phone networks and their SMS/IM/picture-sharing components. But at a deeper level, it covers the human connections as well. In fact, the network of people is really at least as important as the network of machines.

Understood that way, "the network is the user experience" takes on a whole new meaning.

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