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Domain expertise for dummies

Earlier this month, realizing the year was already getting away from me and the box of junk I had resolved to sell wasn’t going anywhere, I started investigating my auction options. Being a hoarder I had never actually sold anything on eBay before, and being a software lover I naturally gravitated towards the ‘rich client’ apps before even thinking about logging in to ebay.com.au… just to see if I could avoid having to master the site. Web 1.0 is soooo last century, so I downloaded some clients, played with them, used them for an auction or two, and you know what?

I opted for the web interface.

Don’t get me wrong, the client software does the job as advertised (and with flair), it just doesn’t do anything more. There is nothing about it that makes it fundamentally any better for a new user than the site itself and, failing to attack any of eBay’s most basic flaws, ends up doing little more than looking nice and requiring fewer page refreshes.

Rather than putting an innovative UI on top of a web services API and delivering a great user experience, they’ve put eBay’s UI on top of eBay’s web services API and delivered eBay’s user experience… but with new buttons and templates.

The argument is this: I shouldn’t have to know how to use eBay’s site to be able to use a desktop auctioneer app, I shouldn’t even have to know what site I’m listing the items on! eBay itself is an implementation detail, a back-end that may be swapped out for Yahoo! Auctions or Google Base if eBay somehow went out of business; that’s what application programming interfaces enable. Instead, I’m given a Cocoa implementation of what already exists in HTML, and there is a minimum domain knowledge assumed before I can even get started. I end up having to learn ‘the hard way’ before I can appreciate the time saved from all the pages I don’t have to refresh. Maybe one day I’ll go back to those client applications and give them a second chance with more experienced eyes, but it isn’t likely.

If your client app is no easier to use than the web site it’s connecting to, offers no more powerful features than the web site it’s connecting to, and has a price tag to boot, what good is it? Something to consider as more and more of our apps move into the world in between the web and the desktop.