To drop or not to drop: desktop metaphors in Web

Blundering blogger, a storyd
For my small personal blog I use Blogger. It looks as if Blogger wanted to offer a very basic-looking tool, which would not scare off an average user. I have chosen it for its pleasant no-nonsense appearance. That I am an interaction designer does not mean that I am a fan of the coolest looking cutting-edge technology. In fact, the coolest looking cutting edge technology leaves me indifferent.

In Blogger you click on links to open edit windows, you have reassuringly big buttons. One day I wanted to fiddle with the template and found my text boxes suddenly in wrong order. I looked for ‘Move up’ or ‘Down’ buttons, but did not find any. In cold sweat I actually considered removing all the boxes and stacking them up again in the correct order, which would mean retyping everything they contained because ‘copy and paste’ would not work, for some reason, and I even did not expect it to work. Then I glanced at the top of the page and saw the words ‘Drag-n-drop the page elements to rearrange your blog’.

Remember your first user test? Users never read help messages, especially on top.

The user is a fish in a bowl…
Reflecting on this user experience from the user experience specialist’s point of view, I am surely not the first to be misguided by the fusion of desktop and web metaphors. We were trained by Web 1.0 not to expect anything fancy in terms of interaction. As a Web 1.0 user you were glad finding the information you needed. Now you can build things yourself, with the result that Desktop metaphors go Web.

Consider the paradigm shift. In your desktop environment your are in your own fish bowl where you can safely drag-n-drop things wherever you like. When you are on the internet you are ‘out there’, in strange open waters. How does it feel to drag-n-drop something in this ocean? What if you dropped it off the page? What if you dropped it on your desktop and it stayed there? Would this break your fish bowl open and would the big ocean come pouring in? The expert users know that nothing bad will happen, but picture your grandmother, the one who worries that her documents are gone if they are moved from the desktop into a folder. When people are confronted with something they do not expect in that particular place it pushes them to look for safer ways of dealing with the situation. It is a feeling, a behavioral pattern. How often did you close a webpage displaying a PDF document, as you would with a document on your desktop once you were done, loosing the whole navigation back? I still do. The ocean comes pouring in, but I keep swimming circles.

…so feed him
When no clues are provided about the mere possibility of drag-n-drop and no visible alternatives, many users quit or start doing unnecessary things. If we are bringing desktop interaction metaphors to the Web, we should give users like me a hint of the fancy interaction mechanisms lying in wait where they are conditioned not to expect them. A hint, and more than a message on top.

Related reading:
Minimizing Usability Risks in Web Applications
When to use drag & drop (some informal research results)

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