Sliders are the new drop-downs

Seth Godin, author of “The Purple Cow” and other books on building great products has a wonderful rant on the persistence of really bad ideas (albeit tangential to his point) around the overabundance of pull-downs [and checkboxes and radio buttons] in forms:

There are fifty states (proof: Clickable Map of US States.) This is a problem. If there were 5 states or 500 states, programmers would never have been tempted into forcing consumers to scroll through a pull down menu to enter their state when shopping online. This means everyone from Texas or New York or heaven forfend, West Virginia, has to scroll all the way down in order to buy something. … No wonder so many people abandon shopping carts online.”

One important take-away from the Ajax Summit was that many of the interface innovations are going to be small and all-but-unnoticable — except in their experiential effect. There will be a steady trickle of mouse-overs and keyboard shortcuts; highlighting and guiding; backgrounded consideration and action; filtering, sorting, and suggesting into our interactions with the web. In particular, forms (and, by extension, form-driven sites) will begin to behave more like we expected them to.

We who are steeped in the capabilities and inabilities of the Web have come to accept that the user experience has left much to be desired and manage to avoid the parts where things have gone all soft. The end-user, on the other hand, routinely runs into those rough patches and is genuinely surprised and rather confused. Just about any airline reservations system (Southwest Airlines has cleaned up about 1/5th of their act) is exemplary of what is broken about the form-driven experience on the web. Select a combination of departure and arrival locales, dates and times, and click the Submit button to throw the dice. Unless you’ve the kind of a priori knowledge I have about flights between my home and office cities, odds are even at best that you’ll net a match or two. Not to mention the chances (and they’re high, given the number of fields on a typical reservation form) that “You did not fill in all the required information.” and will need to “Go back to the previous page and complete your selection.” And to add insult to injury, only recently has clicking the back button on your browser not wiped out all of your hard work (I’m looking at you, Alaska Airlines). These sorts of daily indignities make customers feel dumb.

Javascript and Ajaxian techniques (and Flash, in it’s componentized rather than appletized form) are starting to file down some of these rough edges. Flickr‘s gentle integration of Flash and Javascript, Backpack‘s subtle actions and notifications, Kayak‘s user-driven attenuation of options: all (while certainly early iterations) suggest a path toward the guessability for which Mac OS was so famous and closing the consistency gap between similar actions on the desktop and on the web.

Getting — finally, I’ll admit — to the subject line of this missive, a post on points out the recent uptake of choosing along a continuum with sliders. “Dropdowns are the Excel of interface elements: when you see them, you know you have serious tabbing or mouse clicking to do. Sliders are a pleasingly zippy alternative.” He points to Amazon’s Diamond Search,‘s choice attenuation, and‘s Flash-based chooser as good uses of sliders over dropdowns and the like.

Ajax-to-the-nth Google Maps is clearly different and chock full of genuine GUI goodness. But it’s in the Ajaxian combination of developers and designers taking a fresh look at the officially boring yet still very much broken bits on the web that my interest is piqued.