If You Liked “The Secret” went live yesterday. Talk about a project that expands to exceed available resources, this was it.

The site is for people who liked the movie “The Secret”. It offers some of the classic titles in this field of thought, customized with a person’s name and downloaded in electronic format. It sounds like a good idea on its own, but it’s a surprisingly powerful moment when you open up a book and find it written for you.
Back to the project. The site is small. It has a straightforward “linear path” layout, static content, not many pages, and an interesting product. Seems simple enough. Up in a couple of days no problem, right?

Wrong. I missed an old rule. Whenever a description includes the word “interesting” a red flag should go up.

In this case, what’s interesting is that the site sells personalized e-Books. Duh. Now of course the personalization isn’t trivial, but that’s a back-end issue. Or is it?

By the time I was done, the site went through nearly two full implementations. The first was a traditional “add books to cart, display prices, capture personalization, get payment” approach. The main problem was that the “step through a list of books, customizing each one” user interface would be enough to drive most customers away. I got well into implementing this before coming to the conclusion that I wouldn’t use the site if I was a prospective customer. Not good.

Back to the drawing board. Based on some pretty good statistics on the adoption of IE6 and 7 and the increasing use of Firefox and Opera, I decided to try a radically different interface. With the help of the excellent Mootools Javascript Library, the “cart” is now a dynamic list of books. Clicking on a book opens a personalization panel, and the customizations are sent back to the server though AJAX requests.

The end result is both “cool” and functional. Our biggest issue is that since the interface is relatively radical, it takes a little effort to understand what”s going on. I’m pretty confident that with some tweaking of text and the right visual cues, we’ll be able to ease that process significantly.

Best of all, it works. The request-edit-post cycle that’s typical for browser based applications imposes far too many constraints on user interface design. It can turn tasks that should be simple and straightforward into cumbersome and clunky. Capable browsers and AJAX can really improve the user experience, while simultaneously making development easier on the server side.

The downside is that this power can and will be abused. As developers and designers, we would be well advised to consider why web applications have become so popular. No small part of it is because the constraints imposed by early browsers forced us to design simple interfaces that were easily understood. Now AJAX lets us break out of those shackles, but that’s an invitation for overly complex, obscure interfaces that were previously available only if you developed in Adobe’s Flash.

To some extent I faced this with If You Liked “The Secret”. The interface is great once you get past that initial moment of disorientation, but moments of disorientation can cause a user to just give up (also known as the “uck, Flash… close window” phenomenon). The design should always strive to be intuitively obvious to the largest number of people, and this requires close coordination between development, graphic design, and copy writing; followed up with lots of user testing and feedback.

Which is what the “beta” on the site is all about: making sure we got it right. If you have any comments about the interface, please drop me a line via the “Customer Service” link at the bottom of the home page.