Improving Web forms

In his Techno Files column in last Sunday's Times Business Section ("Finally, Sisyphus, There's Help for Those Internet Forms"), James Fallows notes that technological advances as evidenced in Google Maps, for one, are helping to lessen the pain of dealing with interactive Web forms. Rich Internet Applications/Rich Web Applications/Ajax/call the developments what you may have made Web sites much smarter and much better able to anticipate (and act on) what the user will do next.

Improving the bone structure and the central nervous system of Web technologies is indeed an awesome development, and can go a long way toward mitigating the frustration that's still such a large part of so many online interactions. But what Fallows doesn't touch on, and what seems to me equally crucial, is the need to keep improving the "skin" of Web sites: the layouts, the look-and-feel, and, of course, the text. Because even the most brilliant backend can be nullified if the user can't understand what's happening up front, or runs into an error that's too frustrating or too complex to overcome.

I admittedly know little to nothing about the whole "rich" phenomenon, so it's entirely possible that attention to front end details is part and parcel of it. In any case, it's worth remembering--as countless tests on sites from the simplest to the most complex have shown--that brilliance behind the scenes can't, on its own, make up for weak text and bad design. The three need to work together if Web forms (including error messages and shopping carts) are ever to be as good as they can be.