Is Web 2.0 Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Web 2.0 era is supposed to be about empowering the user, with the average Jane and Joe free to create and communicate, using simple tools that unlock their creative potential–and perhaps create value for their employer.

But Joe Sokohl, director of the User Experience at IT services company Keane, sounds a note of caution on behalf of the very folks Web 2.0 is supposed to liberate. “It creates cognitive overload on the user,” he says. “These are great technologies, with potential benefits. But that has to be tempered with a clear understanding of who people are and what they want to do.”

It’s important to ask if a given technology is really useful or just kind of neat. Does it help people do their jobs, or make things harder than before? “We have to consider the effect on captive users who are doing things with expense-reporting tools, order processing, the applications that make up the bulk of what IT services do,” Sokohl says. “If we don’t appreciate that, we’re doomed to failure.”

The same logic applies to any technology, he says. “It’s a general concern of application development, but people have gotten sucked into the idea that these tools in particular make everything easier for the user.”

Here’s an example: Web sites and widgets that allow people to do what they want could lead people to create things that don’t look or work like anything else. “The temptation is to create a new user interface, and then the experience devolves,” Sokohl says. “You create a new convention, and then when people expect something, they don’t get it.”

A lack of predictability from one widget or application to another hinders productivity. Also, information that lives in external widgets may be difficult to search and retrieve–an issue Sokohl has encountered when working with a client. “Users need to find data in an easy, appropriate way,” he says.

There is such a thing as too much of the do-it-yourself ethic on the job. “People fall in love with what they can do,” he says. “(Web) 2.0 is great for play, invention and discovery, but at work, you need to get the job done, not force the user to become a product designer. Less is more in user interface development.”

Sokohl recalls the early days of desktop publishing, which unleashed a lot of “really bad design,” he says. “Call me a curmudgeon or a fool, but I’m not sold on the wisdom of crowds. Not everyone is a designer or editor.”

Insisting that he’s no luddite, Sokohl speaks of transformative possibilities for the coming generation of technology and cites his use of the Twitter micro-messaging service as an example of his au courantness. He likes the service as a presence-awareness tool, but is quick to point out its shortcomings in terms of enterprise-level security.

The job for the CIO, in Sokohl’s view, is to enable the creation of rich experiences that work for users and the business. He’d like to see the creation of a chief experience officer to make sure form and function are in balance.

Sokohl isn’t ready to say there’s a backlash against 2.0 tools, but he does sense an approaching “cognitive overload” as users face many new choices while trying to do their jobs. He likens himself to the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park, the one who doesn’t question whether we can do something, but whether we should do it.


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