Web-to-Host Connections: Will Web-to-Host Finally Kill the Green Screen?

Nothing screams "legacy" louder than a text-based interface. We all know that GUIs are smarter and sexier. Case closed.

However, a badly designed GUI may be just as bad as a boring, text-based screen. Have you ever visited a badly designed Web site? Not only does it damage a company’s image, but any ugliness and confusion obscures or distracts from the site’s message or online services. In addition, there are still plenty of instances where text-based interfaces simply work better.

Until recently, moving from green screen to GUI meant replacing dumb terminals with PCs. Now, with Web-to-host technology, it only requires a software change. However, before making the plunge to GUI-ize host interfaces, IT managers need to take a hard look at exactly who will be using the interface. In some instances, plain text is more than adequate, or even preferred.

For internal employee networks, GUI presentations can be minimized, or may even be unnecessary. For example, for end users in data-entry or customer-service-intensive operations, it’s often quicker and easier to hammer on a keyboard and tab to different fields than fumble with a mouse. It may not be worth committing development resources and budgets to add visual stimulation to screen formats that work fine as is.

Nevertheless, there’s a strong case that can be made for GUI-izing internal interfaces. Some studies and academic research back up the premise that a well-designed GUI can significantly boost productivity.

A study conducted a few years back by GartnerGroup found that productivity in GUI environments surpassed text-based interfaces by a margin of 45 percent for new application users to 75 percent for experienced users.

Plus, GUI development may help re-engineer application workflow. For example, complicated, multi-screen navigation could be converted to a single-screen display of tab folders with information logically organized by subject area.

For applications that reach outside users, such as customers, there’s no question that GUI is the way to go. A straight-text 3270 or 5250 green screen will scare the living daylights out of most newcomers, who only know the graphical look and feel of Windows PCs. Plus, an interface to outside users may need to be jazzed up with other elements, such as product photos.

A GUI environment should be strong enough to make mainframe interfaces indistinguishable from other servers. Vendors have done a good job of putting out solutions that render host data-streams into HTML screens.

There’s even a science behind building workable GUI interfaces. "The GUI offers a familiar metaphor which is supposed to give users a better sense of how to use a computer," says Dr. William Gibbs, who heads up instructional design programs at Eastern Illinois University, and has authored studies on visual literacy. "For example, the Mac created a desktop which had folders with files in them and a trash can. This is supposed to be analogous to a real desk, where a person picks files to be worked on and then places them back into their folders or trashes them."

There are advantages to recreating environments that users are already familiar with, Gibbs continues. For internal employees, this familiar interface may just well be a text-based 3270 screen, he notes. "If users are familiar with another interface – such as text-based – changing it will cause problems in terms of increased time and less efficiency." As a result, he cautions, deploying GUI interfaces can have the opposite effect, and "can interfere with how people work. There are advantages to both the GUI and text. It’s a matter of knowing where each should be applied."

The bottom line is that whether GUI or text, a good user interface needs to be usable and responsive. This requires careful consideration of how users interact with applications, and may call for more than simply adding buttons and icons, says Gibbs. For example, he says, business users shouldn’t have to wade through 50 screens to find out what a previous week’s sales were. "Take a good look at how people are interacting with the computer to get information, and how you can present that in as few steps as possible."

About the Author: Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in technology research and white papers. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.