There is an opportunity to take ideas from desktop applications and apply then to the web. All user interface design is information visualization. We can blur the distinction between dynamic content and transactions. In designing desktop UI in the ’90s, it was wonderful to see context-sensitive panels and toolbars gradually replace the modal dialog. Why make the user ask a question when we can provide the answer? Some of today’s web sites are already applying this principle in creating dynamic data-driven sites.

I’m not convinced that today’s desktop applications are the best we can do in terms of user experience, nor do I believe that most web applications benefit from the same designs that work well on the desktop. We can borrow ideas and design principles, but the graphical user interface elements and layout don’t always translate well. Most desktop apps were created to let you create and modify documents: word processor, spreadsheet, graphic design tools, etc. Most web apps let you ask questions, find information and perform transactions.

Unlike a desktop app, a web site is a place. I find this metaphor of travel oddly intuitive. It takes time to go from one place to another in real life, so it feels okay to wait when you ‘go’ to another page on the web. We design multiple web pages with a consistent design and user interface elements to create the illusion that a web site, these multiple pages, are a single place. Nevertheless as you troll for information or finalize a transaction, a conversation takes place. You ask questions, fill out forms, click links, and the landscape changes. It’s a completely different experience than the one you have on your solitary desktop, and provides fertile ground for innovative design.

Did you ever wonder why we put scrollbars on the right? I always thought that they just feel better there because they are a fairly heavy-weight UI component and it makes sense for them to live in a fallow area.

“The Gutenberg Rule, first proposed by typographer Edmund Arnold in the early 1950s, says there are four quadrants on a page: the Primary Optical Area (POA; top left), the Terminal Area (TA; bottom right), the Strong Fallow Area (SFA; top right), and the Weak Fallow Area (WFA; bottom left). The theory says that the eye enters a page in the POA and moves by the most direct route to the TA, via what Arnold calls reading gravity.” — from a Deakin University class

Alan Dix’s article tells a different story. He provides a historical perspective describing systems that positioned scrollbars on the left, and introduces some interesting theories that support the modern convention.