So the other day we set my wifes father up with a new computer and got him going on the web with a Gmail account. He’s had a computer in the past and knows the basics of browsing to different sites, etc. I showed him around the net a bit and explained how to get into Gmail and so on.
The next day I figured we’d get a phone call or two on how to do something or other. The call came in around 8pm and he only had one question. “How do I open my mail?”. So I troubleshoot with him a bit about the URL he’s at, if he’s logged in and so on. He had done all that, but every time he click on his mail it just turned yellow.
Of course the problem was that he was clicking on the checkbox and not the subject words. Now if you look at that screenshot above you’ll notice that the checkbox is the only traditional UI widget in there. There is no indication at all that clicking the table row opens the message. No button or link.
For us technology inclined folks it’s a no-brainer, but for the “average” user it makes no sense. It doesn’t work like anything else on the web. So while AJAX/DHTML wizardry is very cool stuff on one level I think it’s important to remember to make your applications work as expected. Some indication needs to be given about what you’re supposed to do.
Now Google is obviously aware of this design decision and maybe they’re trying to “change the game”, but in my opinion creating a UI widget that gives no indication it is a UI widget is bad design. I’ve seen several other AJAX apps lately that are also using “invisible” widgets and it’s a trend which I hope falls by the wayside in the near future.