Uploading and downloading are seams in the web experience

September 28, 2007 ⋅ 4 Comments »

Jeff Atwood asks Why Are Web Uploads So Painful? This isn’t a problem that I run into often, since I don’t upload much video, but I agree with Jeff that the general uploading experience is pretty crappy. On the other hand, I don’t think the experience of downloading is that much better either. Sure, it’s nice to have a separate window with a progress bar, but couldn’t we do better than that?

The user experience of downloading HTML and images is great. So good in fact, that we don’t even refer to it as downloading. We don’t talk about downloading the CNN page, we talk about “hitting CNN” or “looking at CNN”. Conceptually, web browsers are viewers that can read content from remote servers. We are actually downloading content, but we don’t have to think about where we want to save it, we just get to interact with it almost instantaneously.

When it comes to downloading other kinds of files, like say a ZIP or a video, then you’re always prompted for where to save the file. Then, when it’s done downloading, you have to navigate (again!) to the spot in the filesystem where you saved it. That’s actually a kind of funny interaction. Imagine if you wanted someone to hand you a book — if instead of giving it to you directly, they said, “Sure! Where should I mail it to?” and then you had to go to your PO box to pick it up.

One possible solution to this is to just download the file to a temporary location, and then give me a way to interact directly with the file. Essentially, that’s what the browser is doing when it downloads HTML resources and images. But instead of displaying the contents in the browser window, it could display an icon in a sidebar. Then I could act on that file in the exact same way as a would with the downloaded file — double-click to open it, or drag-and-drop it to another folder to move it.

As we become more and more dependent on web applications, these are becoming bigger issues. We often talk about a “seamless” user experience, and the process of uploading or downloading is a really big seam. When you use sites like Box.net, Backpack, or Flickr — very well-designed sites — uploading and downloading is often the worst part of the interaction.


  1. Dubroy.com/blog - Firefox 3 Awesomeness - November 6, 2007:

    [...] First, the download manager has been completely re-written. A few weeks ago, I complained that uploading and downloading are seams in the web experience. One of the things I suggested was that the download window should allow drag-and-drop. Lo and behold, the new Firefox 3 download manager does! Check out the mockup, or bug 397655 for more details. [...]

  2. Dubroy.com/blog - More downloading difficulties - November 23, 2007:

    [...] In the last couple weeks, I’ve mentioned a few times the usability problems associated with downloading from the web (Uploading and downloading are seams in the web experience and Usability problems downloading from web apps). That’s exactly the same problem I ran into this morning. [...]

  3. Dubroy.com/blog - Scribd’s iPaper and the fragile web - February 22, 2008:

    [...] Now I would be the last guy to defend PDF. I’ve invented entirely new swear words just for Acrobat. And I’ve written before about how downloading documents is a seam in the web experience. iPaper seems like it could be an improvement — but it remains to be seen. [...]

  4. Dubroy.com/blog - Google Chrome: Usability Impressions - September 2, 2008:

    [...] Another little bit of UI polish that I think Google got right. Last year, I wrote a post about how uploading and downloading are seams in the web experience. With Chome, Google has made a few small tweaks that make things better. Instead of a separate Downloads window (which constantly annoys me in other browsers), downloaded items appear in the tab they were downloaded from. Look in the bottom left corner of this screenshot: [...]