Business web application design is mostly ignored. A lot of applications don’t satisfy the business entrepreneurs and users and sometimes lead to negligible profit and bad user experience. The designers are least concerned in the process of creating applications and thus putting the entire responsibility on the shoulders of developers.

Developers who have inadequate knowledge of design might face problems even though they have sufficient back-end and front-end development experience. Consequently the customers are discontented and unhappy, frustrated users and incomplete project.

You could apply various techniques, approaches and principles to UI design in common but here we will try to learn more precisely about business Web applications in this article. The basics of user interface design which is required for business web applications is well discussed here.

Websites vs. Web Applications

It’s easy to confuse web applications and websites and simultaneously it is again easy to perplex user interface design and website design. However they differ in many respects particularly their essence and we are going to look at this in this article. A website comprises of set of pages containing mostly static content, video and images with some degree of interactive functionality The prime role of a website is to provide information. Some websites use the content management systems to deliver dynamic content, but their nature is yet informational.

On the other hand web applications are ever changing, interactive systems that prove beneficial to the business community as they can carry out difficult tasks related to their field which directly helps them out to boost and evaluate their productivity. Hence the sole objective of a web application is to execute the function that fulfils the user’s task in accordance to the given list of business rules. Web applications require a higher degree of concern and know how of the system on the part of the user. Users are not limited upon one application; they need to possess a wider outlook. They use it as an implement to perform difficult jobs in their every day life. Further they cannot move from one application to another one if it’s not working well which is possible in the case of websites.

Different Types of Web Applications

Business applications differ in forms from content management systems to banking and financial systems. Document management systems to invoicing for freelancers.

We can differentiate between open and closed applications. Open systems are convenient to access by anyone one who opens an account and they are online applications. Users can get themselves registered to such applications through the internet and can open an account either without payment or by paying a negligible fee.

Closed systems (or line-of-business applications) are meant for the people who can access them only within the periphery of the company that uses it, and they can be Tagged as “offline” applications (although a number of systems reveal their functions to business partners either through services or specialized interfaces).

First, Know Your Users
The closed systems are specifically designed for the employees of the company as they run locally within the four walls of the company. I don’t know who termed it, according to me the system can be defined as weblication.It refers to Web application in general. It is not simple although it is a half website application. One is well acquainted with this fact and that too for good reason. A progressive user interface limelight’s on users and their tasks.

This is significant and a lot of developers have not been able to create a good user experience. While dealing with users remember that neither clients are users nor are you! Though the clients management group are involved in the project and sometimes they try to influence decisions, keep in mind that they just don’t sit before the computer screen for hours together unless and until the application is designed particularly for them.

How to Identify Users?

We can identify users by using various techniques. For example, business stakeholder interviews, user interviews and the “shadowing” process of observation. Interviews help you with answers to the questions about the users and you get to know them well, it also provides you information regarding the computers and systems in general and shadowing procedure throws light on the details about how users carry out their duties and the kind of mistakes they can make in the their way. The method is termed as shadowing as here in the observer can be compared to a shadow watching and noting the steps a user takes.

If you cannot access genuine users because you don’t have the permit or you are designing an open application then you can definitely go for apparatuses that help in identifying users. Personas are helpful because they are the manifestations of the real users, portraying their habits, motivations and objectives. Business analysis is useful as provides information about the users. Sometimes the clients use an older version of the application which one tries to design in a new fashion, I would suggest you to make use of that elderly system and observe how the users make use of it. It will be easier for you to understand their duties and challenges in this manner. Irrespective of who the users are, one thing is definite and that is you have to maintain both newbie’s and experts simultaneously.

Novice users should be provided with the tools so that they can learn as quick as possible, while expert users should be enabled to execute their tasks extremely competently. This might superficially mean creation of two distinct interfaces but in many cases one would be able to provide room for both types of users in the similar interface. This can be done through multiple techniques, such as progressive disclosure. Generally this kind of research is done by business analysts. But if no one else is showing interest for it, you should do it. Once you possess the required information, you can start with the design.

Design Process

One can follow any number of steps while designing the user interface. I would advise you to go for the Agile approach. The answer to the query is that the users or clients consider the interface as the product. They are least interested in your sketches or decorative background or powerful server. They are most concerned about the user interface. Now let’s see the utility of the Agile approach. Its fundamental principle is the iterative approach. Each iteration comprises of the different phases defined by the process. It implies that at the culmination of the first iteration, there will be a product that can be tested, a prototype.

Sketching

The prime objective is to arrive at the result by sketching various concepts. It does not matter if the sketches are rejected. According to Bill Buxton in his Sketching User Experience book, sketches are quick to create and easy to dispose of, and this renders them the potent color. The distinction between sketches and wire frames are vague. Wireframes don’t capture rough ideas but rather build them up. If you get the appropriate sketches then you can create more comprehensive wire frames. Now you can make your move towards creating interactive prototypes. It’s a fabulous way to look at different ideas.

Prototyping

The next stage is the creation of the prototypes that activate the real application. A prototype comprises of one or more traits however it usually does nothing. It only acts as a simulator to the behavior of a real application, and makes the users feel that they are doing something. They may consist of some functionality if required (such as complex calculations). The feature of a prototype done in HTML is transitory — its aim, generally, is to test ideas and do not bother with the code; just see that it operates with least possible bugs. You will chuck it away anyway. One can also make the use of expertised prototyping software. There are people who even prototype in PowerPoint.

Testing

Unless you test the prototypes they are futile. Remember it is not rocket science. People like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug believe in the so-called “discount usability testing”, which is quick and affordable and results in precious insight into your design concepts. This information needs to be used as the base for another iteration of sketching, prototyping and testing. This should be done before the pivotal agendas have been decided. It is important to test prototypes every now and then in order to be more professional because we are aware of the fact that the software projects have to be delivered on time and has a tight budget too. One of the best help for discount usability testing is the upcoming book by Steve Krug, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Go for one copy and read it.

Design Principles

There are innumerable design principles however there isn’t a general agreement on definitive ones. Therefore we will look into design principles more casually, keeping them aloof from the strict definitions. No one likes surprises.

The significant features in a good UI are consistency and familiarity. Throughout the parts of the application from navigation to color to terminology user interface must be consistent.This refers to internal consistency. A user interface should be consistent within its context too. For example, the operating system or other applications in its team or family – Microsoft Office family is a fine example of it. This is coined as external consistency. The user interfaces guidelines should be elaborately discussed for each project or group of projects (this is undoubtedly a fine approach to consistency). It must guide the decisions you make! It helps both ways because firstly it benefits the team members through documentation which helps them understand their resolutions in a better manner and maintains the consistency.

Consistent user interfaces have a shorter learning curve, because users can make out the parts of the system and are able to rely on previous experience. However familiarity is sometimes mixed up with consistency. Familiar user interfaces are based on concepts from the users’ previous experiences and use appropriate terminologies. For example, Folders are a popular metaphor for file organization, and they have substituted “directories”, which were used initially in command line functioning systems. Precisely, it is the language of the users.

The business entrepreneurs believe that a great user interface should resemble a Microsoft Office product, particularly the Outlook. I won’t discuss how pointless this is. But, I will offer another suggestion: defence of the user-centric approach, and explain why creating an application for, clients, employees and partners (i.e. their users) is so essential. Again, most businesses are exclusive, as are their work procedures. For example, two businesses from the mother branch could have important different processes, compelling you to go beyond what is alike but rather to start to innovate. This specific part of the design process can be fruitful, although one needs to be meticulous in how much he innovates.

Users Should Be Able to Be Efficient

Users must be able enough to use the business applications. This is what they get the remunerations for, and this is what employers expect from the application. User interfaces should permit users to be competent and should enable them to complete their duties in the easiest possible manner. However this does not happen always. There is a practice, prevailing among developers that say that the user interface must be as complex as the back-end system. It sounds a bit joking, the problem is genuine and can give you stress. For this reason, fine coordination and collaboration between developers is required. Users are proficient when they are on a particular task. As discussed, task analysis helps you in identifying tasks and determines how users carries them out. If tasks are lengthy, speed them up by breaking them into smaller units. You can also raise efficiency by providing keyboard help and shortcuts. It is inefficient for a user to have to switch back and forth between mouse and keyboard.

In some cases, one has to design for users who are used to work on command-line operating systems and the applications made for them. They need keyboard support. One advice at this specific juncture when defining keyboard shortcuts, keep them consistent together with those of common applications. For example, Ctrl + S option must always be saving, and so forth.

Efficiency can also be increased through personalization. The more the users can personalize an environment the faster they learn and, more precisely, will be more certain in using it. Personalization can be done in different ways for example defining shortcut options and favorites; choosing widgets for the dashboard; changing the order of elements; etc. Pay attention to accessibility. Accessibility plays a dominant role in Web applications, it certainly does. One must treat the application as if it were a public website. A Web application also needs to be good in the speed with which it processes information. Thus, consider grave interactions that are derived from partial renderings and AJAX requests.

Help!

An interface should give important feedback that illustrates the state of the system to users. If an error occurs, users should be intimated and informed of the paths to recover. Users should be notified about the progress of an operation. We can move even further and declare that user interfaces should prevent users from making mistakes. This principle is termed as forgiveness; this follows steps like confirmation dialogs, undo options, forgiving formats and more. Forgiveness is a safe process to discover the interface, diminishes the learning curve and increases overall satisfaction.

A comprehensive help system is required for a complex business Web application. This can be done with, a support database, inline help, guided tours (which mix video, images and text) and a knowledge base. It is undoubtedly a challenge to keep user interfaces for business applications simple as the apps often have a lot of functionality. The principle key to maintain functionality and simplicity in equilibrium is Restraint- it is one of the most beautiful way to attain this balance: i.e. finding the simplest method to solve a problem. Aesthetics, although subjective and somewhat arbitrary, play a pivotal role in overall satisfaction. Users respond optimistically to satisfy user interfaces; sometimes they overlook and miss out functionality. However you’re not creating a work of art. At the end, users generally spend a lot of their time in front of the business application, and it hardly matters how consistent, usable or forgiving the user interface is, satisfaction determines how efficient it is.

Essential Components of Web Applications

Every Web application is exotic, but many of them comprise of familiar features. Although the function of any one of these features will differ, let’s find out the prime idea of the three most common ones. Web Forms Forms are usually important to Web applications. Luke Wroblewski says in his book Web Form Design, “No one likes filling in forms”. That incorporates sign-up forms in business applications with dozens of fields.

It’s essential to reduce the frustration of filling in forms and provide inline validation and good feedback. Use defaults when possible. Remember there are newbie’s. Wizards might help you to complete tasks faster, or use progressive disclosure to conceal advanced (or infrequently used) features.

Master-Detail Views

This is the how data is shown in two different but related views. The first view reveals a list of items, while the other shows facts of the selected item. They can be worked out across multiple pages or on individual ones. A dashboard reflects important information needed to take action and make resolutions. It is limited to a single page and is actually the starting point of an application. They are important because they help users to gain information and take action according to it without having to dig through the application.

Heavy Use of Tables

Web applications generally deal with large numbers of data that can be easily accessed and sorted, tables are inevitable. But this is a good thing. Actually, tables were made for this purpose. Don’t get confused with table-less layouts. Effective tables are understood easily. So, in most cases, a meaningful header, an optimal number of columns, pagination, is alternating row colors, proper column alignment, sorting and filtering Capabilities and much more. Tables can serve interactive too, it means they are able to generate supplementary info and even modify the data they contain.

Reports

Mostly businesses function with some kind of reports. Printed reports are usually preferred so pay heed to the design of reports. Printed (or exported) reports are generally simplified versions of online reports, optimized for monochrome printers.

Don’t Forget UI Design Patterns

Never forget UI design partners. UI design patterns are quite capable for designing user interfaces. The significant thing is to give them importance during the design process, particularly at the sketching stage. Because patterns often solve common problems, the right pattern can make it easier for the user’s familiarity with an interface and boost the speed at which they learn it.

Final Thoughts

Designing user interfaces for business Web applications is a mighty job, full of compromise. You need to make adjustments between client and user needs; business requirements and user’s novice and expert user’s functionality and simplicity. It requires a firm understanding of users and their jobs, simultaneously UI design principles and motifs. Irrespective of the difficulties, the job is delighting, and one learns infinite new things on each project that affects the way one design websites.