One of the vanguard designers addressing the notion of experience on the Web is Nathan Shedroff, creative director at Vivid Studios in San Francisco. "Interactivity is nothing new," Shedroff notes. "We've been interacting with each other for thousands of years. However, interactivity is new to computers, which excites people in the software industry. But in their excitement, they forget everything they know about creating experiences for other people. People confuse interaction with dynamism. Just because images are moving doesn't mean we have interactivity. If video, sound or animation adds value, these media can add a great deal to the experience. For most people it just adds noise."
Let's define the experience of the World Wide Web. Today, from the audience's point of view, much of the Web is about clicking, waiting, reading and looking. And waiting some more. And that, says Shedroff, "is just really bad television." Frankly, for designers and end-users, it represents an enormous step backward in terms of the richness of the experience, the media used and the impact made. However, that's changing, and changing fast, thanks to some new tools and techniques and savvy, strategic implementation by sophisticated Web site designers.
In the last year a number of products, plug-ins and shareware programs have been released that enable designers to take their Web sites to a new level of experience. The Web now presents a richer media palette. Web sites that formerly existed as a collection of static pages, cross-referenced together with hyperlinks, have begun to sing and dance. Technical achievements like video streaming are beginning to crawl off the lab bench and onto the Web. Shockwave, from Macromedia, enables graphic designers to take small, compressed Director animations and re-envision them for the Web. GIF animations bring Web pages to life with thumbnail animations. And in the realm of clip art, several vendors have made it possible to enliven Web sites with drag-and-drop media files, including Photodisc's GIF animations and QuickTime VR, Apple computer's navigable 360-degree panoramic scene-making software. The Web has gotten louder, too, with the addition of Real Audio and Apple's PlainTalk technology that converts text to synthetic speech.
Add them all up and what do you get? If you're not careful, you get a mess on your hands. You get gratuitous multimedia. You get eye candy. You get dancing baloney. So it becomes vitally important to use media on the Web strategically. That means using multiple media to reinforce the experience of the Web site, create an identity for the site and leverage the brand identity into the new medium in ways that simply can't be done in traditional mediums.
Next Generation Web sites
In his book Designing Killer Web Sites, designer David Siegel of Studio Verso in San Francisco calls these new sites Third Generation Web sites. One of the most provocative points raised by Siegel is that creative teams must learn to provide an "experience" for the end user. Third Generation sites, according to Siegel, use rich graphics, animations, sound and built-in interactive functions to provide the richest experience possible.
Building a gateway to a Web site, in which the end user is served a series of images, creates a sense of motion, builds anticipation and begins to approach the language of film and storytelling. These "tunnels," as Siegel calls them, help establish a tone, and create a visual experience more dynamic than watching a page download across the screen. Not only that, they help brand the Web site with a unique identity.
Pushing the Pixels Down the Pipeline
The good news about animation on the Web is that, thanks to a new generation of shrink wrapped and shareware programs that have hit the market, creating animations on the Web is a fairly simple process. That's also the bad news. It means that the "billboard" site has progressed to a the equivalent of the flashing lights on the signs outside the Pik 'n' Pay.
However, in capable hands, animation on the Web can deliver the goods. Shockwave has managed to set the gold standard for animation on the Web, mainly because the technology is familiar to programmers who cut their teeth on CD-ROMs programmed with Director. Macromedia recently beefed up their product line with Flash, a vector-based animation tool. Some nifty shareware programs like Gifbuilder for the Mac and GIF Construction Set for Windows also enable small self-contained animations that play with minimal fuss (and no required plug ins) on user's computers.
Of course, the question most professionals should be asking themselves is, "Why animate?" Why distract from a message with extraneous movement? Beyond the simple perceptual fact that moving objects attract the eye, what sites can benefit from movement? Obvious answers are those sites in which movement is synonymous with the experience. For some of the most compelling uses of animation on the Web, go to the Shockwave showcase on the Macromedia site at www.macromedia.com/shockzone. For a true singing, dancing Website, point your browser at www.aquarela.com to see how this dance troupe puts GIF animations and streaming audio to good use.
When should you use animation? When movement contributes to a deeper understanding of your product's abilities, features, benefits or processes. For one of the single best uses of Shockwave on the Web, take a look at the animations on the Netday site (www.netday.org/btw/cutplaster.html). Far from being gratuitous, these animations provide information in a way impossible to achieve with an instruction manual. After viewing these animations, you should feel confident of your ability to wire an entire school to the Internet. So get started.
Come in, Rangoon! Sound on the Web
While the audio quality may remind you of driving through a tunnel listening to AM radio, sound is one of the biggest breakthroughs to hit the Web. Web pages, formerly the Marcel Marceau of media, suddenly had a voice. Real Audio sound files made it possible to "tune in" a distant station on the Web, far beyond its broadcast range, with little regard for its original programming time slot. Record companies jumped on the ability to let their audience sample their wares, teasing them with streaming audio files (like those on www.wbjazz.com) that played brief clips of artists' new CDs. Role-playing games were able to add the voice of their character, adding a level of dimensionality and believability. And the judicious use of sound can add to the overall sensorial experience delivered via the Web. Click on the www.bmwusa.com site and listen to the Z3's engine rev up. BMW likes it so much, they trademarked it.
The Virtual Visit: QuickTimeVR
Want to test drive BMW's new Z3? Yeah, me, too. But frankly I'd rather chew off my left arm than walk into an automobile dealership. For people like me, BMW has incorporated Apple's QuickTimeVR technology into their site at www.bmwusa/assets/bmwqtvr/. Download the plug-in and I'm as close to the showroom as I'll ever get. I can manipulate the Z3 in a 360 view, navigate the cockpit, and, when I'm ready, I can link out to a local dealership to schedule a test drive. Its a phenomenal way of shortening the sales cycle and achieving the holy grail of marketing: one-to-one selling.
Seeing is believing: Web video
OK. So you've got an audience surfing in on 14.4 modems. What can you do with video until the bandwidth expands? Using the principle of "presence," Doris Mitsch, CD at Doris & Clancy, San Francisco, was able to use video postings to the Web site she created for Black Star beer in Whitefish, Mont. Part of her creative brief was to establish an identity for Black Star that branded it as a real microbrewery, not one of the fake wannabrews from the industry giants. So she set up a site for Black Star that incorporates a video feed. Viewers at www.blackstarbeer.com/brewnet/direct/local.htm can get a glimpse of various parts of the brewery, and even a view from downtown.
On the principle that seeing is believing, video is used effectively to ground Black Star in its locale, and establishes an identity for the beer as real and