When is a Browser not a Browser?

I’ve recently had discussions with some colleagues about the user experience of the CRM Web Client, particularly in light of changes in behavior in IE 7. If you’ve been keeping up to date on the blog, you know from Michael Lu’s recent post that CRM startup behavior isn’t so smooth with IE 7’s tabbed browsing. And you learned we have two modes for the Web Client:  “AppMode” “on” and “off”

AppMode – A Quick Recap

“AppMode” – In the default mode, when you access the URL for your CRM Server (e.g. http://mycrmserver), CRM launches a new “application window” and attempts to close the parent browser window, which causes a confirmation prompt in IE 7. This “application window” is actually a browser window minus all of the browser toolbars and menus. However, from a user’s perspective, they’re no longer in IE, they’ve started the CRM application.
As Michael explained, you can turn “AppMode” off via web.config. This will enable the CRM Web Client to run in the same IE window with all of the standard browser controls --- just like when you visit a web site like Amazon, a SharePoint site, or your Hotmail account.

By the way, you can achieve the same result as an end user without modifying web.config. Just append “loader.aspx” to the end of your server URL (e.g. http://mycrmserver/loader.aspx).

Here’s what the current IE7 build looks like with AppMode off (or by accessing the loader.aspx directly):

A Little History…

This way of running a browser application in “AppMode” is pretty unique – even the plethora of consumer oriented web email clients don’t attempt this style of presentation. It wasn’t where we started in the earliest designs. As it turns out, the design choice is a response to usability studies that were run on early versions of V1.0. 

In these studies, we found that the majority of these “first time” users in this study were attempting to perform CRM tasks using the IE Toolbar. For example, some tried to use the Tools menu in the IE toolbar to import contacts.

Given the time and resource constraints, the recommendation was to create “AppMode” to turn off the IE Toolbars and Menus, rather than exploring other, perhaps more radical design changes to address these issues.

Of course, all design decisions involve compromises. The follow up usability study showed us that while users were finding the correct places to initiate CRM tasks, there was now no obvious way to get to previous screen: A number of users got lost in the application and got out of this by closing and opening the application. In essence, removing the IE toolbar removed the easy method of going back to the previous page.

When is a Browser not a Browser?

So back to the discussions I’ve been having. AppMode has some clear advantages.
It creates an immersive application experience, free of browser controls. Users forget that they are running in the browser (less true in IE7, which will make it more apparent what URLs you are accessing, particularly over the Internet). By creating a more controlled “application” experience, in theory, it should reduce end user support issues as users won’t be tempted or confused by IE toolbars.

On the other hand, you give up on a lot that the browser has to offer. Backward and forward navigation is one obvious element (and would be a good deal more important if we had a flat UI model that didn’t open child windows so often…). But there’s more. In the same way that we asked ourselves how we can seamlessly tie into the Outlook experience in 3.0, what could the best experience inside the browser be? Can we conceive of taking more direct advantage of built in browser functionality? History, Favorites, Tabbed Browsing?

Your Thoughts?

From a user experience perspective, are we ahead of the competition in that we’ve created a “browser-less” browser-based application? Do you know of any other web applications that do this? What’s your take? Can you conceive of what the best experience would be like inside the browser with the full IE toolbars available? What would we need to do to make it a great experience?

Derik Stenerson

Comments (4)

  1. Paul says:

    I am looking for details on a Dynamics CRM feature and came across this entry and just had to comment.

    I think the browser application was the poor way to go.  You tied yourself into a platform that has poor resource management (a poor message pump) and you require design & code acrobatics to get access to the local resources.

    Effectively you added to your dependencies.  This then manifests into the problem where IE crashes on certain use of the CRM browser client.  Such as the click a menu to open the dropdown in CRM and then click the LHS navigation

    Smart Client would have been better in so many ways.

    It is interesting that Microsoft evangelizes Smart Clients to ISVs.

    OWA works in a pinch; my day-to-day email is through the outlook Smart Client.

    My Product feature request — smart client stand-alone and smart client integration into outlook (not the web page viewer implementation).

  2. Considering that you have already made the choice of a web-based client (something that might be discussed but in some other forum) I agree with the client-experience idea of the appmode. I have a quite cynical view of users and believe that only the necessary information should be shown in order to reduce support and educational costs for the client. This is also the reason I agree with the comment above.

    Therefore I think attempts should be made to make the appmode work in IE7.

    However, I don’t think this is where most users annoy themselves with MS CRM, but instead with the problems of clicking themselves to death. Even though v3 is a lot better than 1.2, there is still a long way to go. For instance, try to open an attached pdf in a CRM-mail, compare the number of clicks to Outlook. This is also a problem in the process of placing an order where microsaves in time for innersales are most signigicant.

    I also think that CRM 3 has made a good initiative of using AJAX and other similar techniques and this should be greatly enhanced to make CRM 4 or 5 the great application it is destined to be.

    Gustaf Westerlund

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