Silverlight – User’s perspectives

Last year, I blogged my first Silverlight-related post and wondering how Silverlight will define the next-gen Web application. Now, I’m back with some opinions on Silverlight, but with one major difference. This time I will share some thoughts and perspectives from end users view instead of developers.

As Web developers, definitely you should have heard all the great things about Silverlight, from the rich animations, nicer look and feel, and so on. And well, yeah, we even already released two UI components based on Silverlight, so Silverlight is not a new thing at all. The idea of this post came across my mind while our team performed some usability research on this promising RIA platform, specifically on business application scenarios using Silverlight 2 entirely.

Sure Silverlight is still in beta, but I’m afraid some of the existing pitfalls could be the same point-of-failures that caused Adobe’s Flash to fail dominating the Web several years ago. I’m not trying to compare Silverlight and Flash in this post as the scope is too wide, however, I would like to start with my opinions of those pitfalls. The success of the future RIA will really depend on whether Microsoft can get rid of these problems in Silverlight.

Some of the following issues, are not specifically scoped on Silverlight alone. In fact, they apply to the rest RIA platforms as well, such as Adobe’s Flash, and other plug-in based RIA type. Again, please note that the below list is pointed out from user’s perspectives and experience, not developer.

  1. Good-bye to “Back” and “Forward” button.
    Most functions in the browsers such as Back/Forward, History, Bookmarks are no longer applicable in RIA type plug-in, including Silverlight. You no longer be able to use Back button to go back to the previous page of your application.
  2. Can’t live without context menu (right click).
    It’s unlikely that Silverlight will allow developers to handle right click event since it has to comply the browser’s standard to display the plug-ins own menu in order to allow users to modify its Settings. I believe most, if not all, users will severely affected with this limitation as they have used to perform right click for context menu.
  3. No copy-paste.
    Since RIA, particularly Silverlight in this context, is mimicking desktop application, everything becomes static. With labels, textblocks, rectangles and GUI controls, you can’t easily copy an information by selecting it and paste it for further processing. Furthermore, don’t think you can easily do “Select All” with the usual Ctrl+A or mouse selection.
  4. No hyperlink.
    The main concept of Web is that every piece of information can be easily linked everywhere, allowing users to easily navigate from one to another, as well as opening the link in new browser. RIA, however, has a different concept where it went back to the desktop era. Certainly, RIA is not a typical Website that display information, but I think users will miss “hyperlinks” a lot.
  5. Very minimal keyboard support.
    The Web, specifically W3C’s HTML as we speak, already have a great standards in accessibility features and keyboard support, and others. As users, we are used to see tooltips and press shortcut keys such as Alt+x to go to certain fields and so on. Silverlight, AFAIK so far, doesn’t seem to have that capability yet.

Not to mention the other technological-issues such as unindexable sites/pages. This means Google can’t index and show search results of your site/application, since Silverlight delivers binary, not text. Well, I don’t intend to spread negative images on Silverlight or any RIA approach — I do hope Microsoft can work something on these, or at least providing acceptable workarounds or solutions.

So, what do you think? As a computer user, do you think the above issues would become major showstoppers for Silverlight despite of its rich UI capabilities? Also if you are planning to develop business application using Silverlight 2.0 in near future, have you considered such usabilities features and issues? Do you think your users would be significantly affected with such limitations? Or, do you think you will stick on pure Web/AJAX application for a while longer? Feel free to share your thoughts here.

In my next post, I will cover some Silverlight issues from developers perspective, given the current state of Beta 2.

All the best,


2 thoughts on “Silverlight – User’s perspectives

  1. Andrea Hill

    Hi Jimmy, thanks for the list of potential pitfalls affecting Silverlight. I will admit than other a Microsoft session on “architecting the user experience” last year, I only have a passing knowledge of silverlight.

    I did want to respond to your overall list of RIA challenges, however. .. I will speak both in general, and also specifically referring to Flash/Flex, because that’s where I have a better understanding..

    1. Good-bye to “Back” and “Forward” button.
    This is true. However, this is true even for AJAX. We have to remember that the “A” in RIA stands for “application”. Once you’re within the application, you’re within that experience. Back and forward can be used to advance within the actvities within the experience, just like undo and redo in a typical desktop app.
    For some people this is disorienting, but this is only because we’ve allowed RIA to ‘sneak up on us’ without really appreciating what is it. I heartily believe that this is the desired user experience in the long run, and people just need to learn this capability exists.
    I will add, though, that history management is possible with the Adobe suite of RIAs, I believe Flex 3 may do it natively? There are ways to modify the URL while engaged within the RIA so that the back and forward buttons do in fact shoot you out of the experience. I believe silverlight has the ability to interact with the page outside itself, right? So it could probably be managed as well.

    Can’t live without context menu (right click).
    MAC users have done it for how long? 🙂

    No copy-paste.
    Again, this must be a limitation in Silverlight. You can certainly copy and paste from .swfs, if the text elements are saved appropriately. I’m not sure about “select all”, however. This is actually probably browser specific, since for .swfs at least, the means by which the plugin is embedded is different (object vs embed). A user cannot “tab” into a flash movie in Firefox 2 (not sure about 3, but I suspect not). Therefore I would expect that a select all would not really allow them to capture what is within the RIA itself.

    No hyperlink.
    Whaaa? I find it hard to believe silverlight doesn’t support hyperlinks? Although once again, these are applications. Would you expect excel to randomly have hyperlinks in it? No, an application is intended to allow a user to perform a specific task.

    Very minimal keyboard support.
    It’s interesting that Silverlight doesn’t have strong accessibility support, since Flash and Flex leverage the Microsoft Active Accessibility API to do their accessibility 🙂

    In general it’s tough to contrast the controls within a rich experience like flash or silverlight with HTML. HTML has a limited set of tags to markup content. Flash and Silverlight are less about “content”. How do you assign specific keystrokes or shortcuts to concepts that a designer has just come up with? This is why it’s important to have a library of components to use and reuse. The appropriate keystrokes may be learned by the user to perform certain tasks. I would be surprised if keystrokes couldn’t be assigned in Silverlight, but the challenge would be in educating users in how to use them (the same problem that traditional web applications suffer with access keys)

    I think it’s great that you’re looking at this stuff from the users’ perspective! Often I think we technophiles get so excited about ‘the next big thing’ that we forget to consider the overall usability!

  2. jimmyps Post author

    Hi Andrea, thanks for your comments and detailed response on some of my points.

    I have some feedback on your points as well:

    MAC users have done it for how long?
    In fact, Mac does have right click and context menu feature since Panther if I’m not mistaken. It’s just not turned on by default, but now Apple is even inventing on new way to display context menu. So the trend of right click, I’m afraid, is simply undeniable.

    How do you assign specific keystrokes or shortcuts to concepts that a designer has just come up with?
    RIA, I think, is mimicking the way Desktop application is built so that end users can have the same expections for RIA as they are using Desktop application. If you are in Word, you can press Alt+F to display the File menu. If you are at data entry screen, you can press the character in underline to go to that field automatically.

    It’s unfortunate, given the state of Beta 2, Silverlight doesn’t have a built-in way for that yet. Sure you can handle the OnKeyDown event handler, but that will be way too much coding. Probably they will make it as built-in feature in the final release, let’s just hope 🙂



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