User Experience and the Cloud

July 7, 2011

UX in the Cloud

UX in the Cloud

We are currently developing a new MSc in Cloud Computing. This is next big thing, I am told. It’s everywhere. Even this blog is in the Cloud if you like. There is quite a bit of confusion on what Cloud Computing really is. These days everyone wants to be in the Cloud  and so naturally people just interpret the term as suits. More often than not, people seem to confuse Cloud Computing with Software as a Service (SaaS). Sure, that’s an important aspect, but as far as I can see, changes on the software side are triggered by advances on the infrastructure and platform side. Hence, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). If this trend continues, we might have UX as a Service soon.

What does Cloud Computing mean for UX? Well, at first glance there is nothing new. In fact, the user in many cases doesn’t see whether an interface is cloud-based or not, and most of them frankly don’t care either. But before you turn away, have a closer look. Here are three trends that will have an impact on UX design and evaluation.

  • Thin clients: We have seen thin clients before and we will see many more of them. Whether it’s a virtual desktop or a chromebook. Thin clients come with a number of advantages for UX design: We don’t have to care as much about hardware configuration and maybe even software configuration.  Things are managed and updated centrally, the user can focus on the tasks at hand. But the thin client may (potentially) come with less computing power for say some graphical effects, real-time simulation or modelling.
  • Variety of devices: Even more so than now, we will access our data through an ever increasing variety of devices. Your laptop just ran out of power? Why don’t you use that plasma TV screen over there. Just login and you can continue working were you stopped. The idea is that it doesn’t matter any more where or how we access our working environment, you’ll get a comparable user experience on any device. Well as I said, that’s the idea. There is actually still quite a bit of research and development to do, before we get there. System metaphors that work on the desktop may not work on a mobile device. Layouts that work on the mobile device may be a waste in kiosk mode on a large screen.
  • Mash-ups: Already now, many websites provide much more than their own information. They combine existing services and information streams into a new offer. From a software development perspective it is quite straightforward now to stick in yet another news stream, search box, video, you name it. That’s great in terms of breaths of functionality, but bad in terms of consistency. UX designers need to take care that all components have the same look & feel, behave in the same way and support the overall structure of the site. A lot can be achieved by simple CSS, but if you cannot tweak the behaviour to make it conform with the rest of your site, I would recommend to leave it out.

None of the above is revolutionary. Nevertheless, the shift towards public and private clouds, mainly driven by cost considerations, will facilitate developments such as the above. This will bring new challenges for UX. Let’s make sure UX doesn’t end up out in the rain, but up in the cloud.

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