Rich Internet applications are the cornerstone of Web 2.0, the next generation, truly interactive Internet. They go beyond first wave HTML applications to offer better interactivity, speedier and more satisfying user experiences that keep customers around longer, as well as a way to differentiate your brand on the Web.

If your company's core interaction with customers is online, rich Internet applications can prove worth the effort and expense. 'Being able to differentiate the experience online is a huge win,' says Ron Rogowski, principal analyst with Forrester.

New programming and design tools such as Ajax --which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML -- and Adobe Flex, a set of technologies used to build cross platform applications with the widely-adopted Flash multimedia software, are facilitating the creation of these rich applications. And unlike desktop applications, rich Internet applications can put more computing power on the client and create a seamless interaction without requiring a software download or creating possible version control headaches in the future, as desktop applications do.

Improving user experiences

A better online experience means fewer abandoned shopping carts, more sales, and more business. has a 'shop together' function that replicates the experience of two people shopping in a store, where they can separately look at items and then show them to each other and talk about them later -- albeit through browsers. Companies like want to increase sales and minimize returns, so allowing people who will share a purchase to collaborate on that purchase online is a plus, Rogowski says.

Companies don't need to worry about the bandwidth needs of rich Internet applications: The majority of homes have broadband connections. According to Gartner, 60 percent of U.S. homes have broadband, and by 2012, it will be even more common, as 77 percent of households adopt it. And even those people who don't have broadband at home likely have it at work, Rogowski says, so connection speed becomes less of a hurdle to the implementation of rich Internet applications.

However, along with the flexibility of these new tools to improve user experience on your business website comes the chance of making design mistakes that end up frustrating your customers. 'The root of the problem with building rich Internet applications is that designers try to do too much, making them more complex than they need to be,' Rogowski says.  These design mistakes include hiding content and navigation, going overboard with animation motion, not offering helpful interactive cues, and making the applications too complex.

What not to do with rich Internet

  • Don't make customers work to get to content.  Interfaces should be designed to expose contextual details without cluttering the page or forcing users to lose the flow of what they're doing.  Don't make it into a game, with customers having to search for navigational elements.  'Some rich Internet applications go to the opposite extreme of forcing users to hunt for content and navigation that they might not even know is there,' Rogowski says. If users miss the navigational elements, you lose the benefits of your application. 'Rich Internet applications help users stay engaged as they move smoothly through complex processes like projecting their net worth at retirement or configuring a luxury auto,' Rogowski says.
  • Don't go overboard with animation and motion.  Development tools make it easy to incorporate animations onto webpages. They also can expose additional information on an item when a customer rolls the cursor over text or an image, bringing up a window that layers on top of the page, without having to refresh the whole page or open a new one. While animations can be used to create interest, if overused they can end up being distracting.  Ditto motion. 'Sometimes the movements associated with opening and closing this content can be distracting,' Rogowski says. When used correctly, motion can bring up just the information a customer is looking for, without requiring him to open a new page, and potentially get distracted or lost.
  • Don't confuse customers with poor interactive cues.  Make it clear which text or images are active, by coloring the text, or providing an icon that suggests a customer could delve deeper, so that customers don't have to guess how to navigate. 'Users should be able to quickly discern what's clickable and what's not,' says Rogowski.
  • Don't make applications too complex.  Don't try to cram too much onto the page. Companies often make the text too small, and therefore unreadable. 'People would rather scroll than squint,' Rogowski says.

How to use rich Internet effectively

Rich Internet applications can be designed effectively by creating a 'persona' that takes into account what the user will be doing on the site. Rich Internet applications don't provide a lot of benefit if people can't figure out how to use them. In addition, to get the most out of an investment in rich Internet applications, test the application with people who are actually going to use it. Don't wait until the application is finished. Test it throughout the design process. For a small company that doesn't have the budget for extensive usability testing, an option is to find a guinea pig at your local Starbucks.

'Rather than exposing the complicated process, make it simple for your customers,' Rogowski says. By not giving good interactive cues, you defeat the purpose.  'The simpler the interface, the more powerful the tool,' he says.