Amid all the hype congesting the information superhighway-news flashes trumpeting the latest Fortune 500 company to climb into a Bell Atlantic or Time Warner test bed, or articles expounding virtual reality commercials years premature-concerns like Perry's are surfacing like potholes, and as niggling as they appear, such user-friendly design elements may ultimately be the key to successful interactive advertising.
Interactive design allows you to "put yourself in the shoes of your viewer," says Bonnie Smetts, whose eponymous Berkeley, Calif., design firm is creating a natural sciences CD-ROM. "If you do it well, you can actually influence the way they take in information. But if it's done poorly, you lose them-immediately."
As far removed as trade show and shopping mall kiosks or educational and game CD-ROMs may seem from television advertising, they are, according to a number of designers, the closest thing to what interactive commercials will look like. Indeed, disc-based promotions are already being exploited as viable sales tools by everyone from the designers themselves to luxury import carmakers, and the success of any interactive program, particularly those aimed at the average consumer, hinges on friendly interfaces and shaping information into digestible segments. The more intuitively navigable a program is, the more likely the consumer will reach the final payoff or sales pitch-yet a program that's too simple is as unintriguing as one that's too complex.
Most of today's projects come from small firms, freelancers and pixel-savvy commercials production companies, many of which are being asked to assist mega-
agencies-Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, DDB Needham, McCann-Erickson,Young & Rubicam, Bozell and Leo Burnett are among the shops that have already established interactive units-as they prepare for test projects or build up in-house new media units.
Among agencies producing interactive work, O&M Direct is one of the most prodigious, with experience that dates to a decade ago with the now defunct Videotex, an early online service that disseminated news, weather and shopping information. The interactive group started with disc-based promotions in 1985 and now designs kiosks and online ads as well. Two years ago it made the news with a disc bound into Forbes magazine that represented 10 clients, and included a Jaguar promo that was a quasi-showroom experience and a Glenlivet scotch ad modeled as a mystery game. But Meredith Flynn, an account director at O&M's electronic marketing division, sounds most proud of their just completed Absolut Museum. Created for TBWA, the set of three floppy discs for IBM machines and compatibles "is the first use of virtual brand awareness in cyberspace" says Flynn. The package, whose sales benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research, is a 3-D journey through a museum filled with 216 Absolut ads, including a sampling of classic ads, the "Cities" and "Statehood" series and the artist commissioned pieces. Manuever through nine different galleries lined with secret passageways: Click on "Absolut Harmony" and a choir sings. Move close to "Absolut Florida," click and pop out of "Absolut Miami." Tap the artists' ads and read bios or a quote.
While the Absolut Museum lends itself to fun-filled, imaginative design, not every client's services fit this format, and some wind up ill-suited for the medium, usually replicating the video or print form they've originated from. Dick Jones, New York Chapter president of the International Interactive Communications Society, is disturbed by what he calls shovelware, which is the result of companies amassing existing info and, in an effort to appear to be hip to the technology, "getting someone to shovel it onto a CD-ROM. That doesn't mean the interface is well-thought out or structured," he adds, offering as an example the American Business Phone Book CD-ROM, which provides nothing more than names and phone numbers, when it could offer mini bios with video, cross references or a section to store frequently used numbers. "It doesn't utilize the medium and it doesn't add anything inspiring."
Brad Husick, VP-marketing at Clement Mok Designs in San Francisco, an award-winning high-tech design firm, shares that view. For instance, CMD created the product identity for En Passant, a shopping CD-ROM for Apple computers that sells items from stores like Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and L.L. Bean. But Husick points out that it's not simply a collection of catalogs; it also includes a section to store important birthdays and anniversaries and a personal profile that will tailor a catalog based on the user's style preferences and needs, culling items from all the stores' offerings. "That touches on the kinds of things that are going to make a difference in what interactive can add to our lives," Husick says. The theme was continued in CMD's The Mayo Clinic Family Pharmacist, a CD-ROM based on the book of the same name, which is elucidated with charts and sections where families can enter their health histories to help diagnose illnesses. Similarly, an interface created for a CD-ROM called CollegeView helps students find possible schools through a profile section where they enter things like career goals, hobbies and desired locales and get a multimedia presentation on each matching school. A help menu employs video clips of people who walk onscreen to point out the different icons. Husick partly credits the firm's aptitude for interactive projects-it just opened sister company CMCD to specialize in CD-ROM products-to a staff trained in everything from cognitive psychology to intuitive human behavior. "It takes all these disciplines to do the job justice," Husick says. Predictability, a progression from simplicity to complexity and appropriate "feedback mechanisms" all must be considered when designing an interface.
For instance, while browsing through a program, "ocassionally you want to dip deeper into more information and then bounce back into simpler terrain," Husick explains. "It's not just a progression from simplicity to complexity."
Frustrating users with stringent linear paths is another pitfall, and a pet peeve of Jessica Perry of the one-person shop Fat Baby Productions in New York, which she named after her indulgently expensive hardware. In '91 she helped design Time Warner Interactive Group's Seven Days in August, a documentary about the Berlin Wall that was rated Best CD-ROM of '93 by MacWorld magazine. Yet Perry still finds room for improvement. "The interface is clunky," she points out. "You have to sit through the intro every time you slip in the CD-ROM. I wouldn't settle for that again." Still, Seven Days is easy enough to navigate: Click on a number indicating a pivotal day in the Wall's history, or skip around a map that points out key events.
Providing users with a sense of control is another vital ingredient to successful interactivity, an element central to Forever Growing Garden, a children's CD-ROM released by Media Vision in January and designed by San Francisco-based Arborescence. A multimedia design firm whose installations range from the American Museum of Natural History's innovative exhibits project to computer-based store demos for Apple, Arborescence's latest project is a CD-ROM that grows an onscreen garden. After choosing the location of the garden, various flowers, bushes and vegetable seeds can be bought from the hardware store and planted. The rate of growth can be adjusted by clicking on a hare or turtle symbol on the speed meter. Ripe vegetables can even be picked and sold at the market, "so children learn by doing, not just browsing," explains Arborescence principal Tyler Peppel. "We just don't want to be imitating books."
Indeed, interactive is still searching for its own identity and recognition in mainstream design. With multimedia design education just emerging at many schools, self-trained designers are applying their experience from other disciplines. For instance, illustrator/animator Gary Zamchick worked at the Push Pin Group and the Ink Tank before switching to interactive design in 1981. When he designed for Time's Teletext, an early satellite-based interactive news server, he says the newspaper and magazine editors running it tried to recreate their linear print experience onscreen. "People jump to something that's very near and dear to them," Zamchick reasons. "I thought it should be more like a playground-go running into the screen and travel through it, rather than travel across it."
Zamchick, who opened New Jersey-based Dadabase Design almost 10 years ago, has continued this nonlinear approach with, for instance, designs for prototype interface for AT&T's upcoming shopping channel and whimsical and cartoony touches that can be seen on kiosks at the World Financial Center in New York.
Another CD-ROM that banishes accepted print parameters is a title from New York-based interactive publisher Voyager, called Marvin Minsky, Society of Mind. Part of its First Person series in which authors' theories are illuminated with video, graphics and text, this CD-ROM, directed and produced by Voyager's Moe Shore and freelancer Ann Marion, features the co-founder of MIT's Media Laboratory, who appears next to his written theories, talking, walking and jumping, as if in a cyberspace lecture hall. "This is the first time I said to myself, 'That looks like what a margin has always been for,'*" says Zamchick, a fan of the project. "To have this little expert standing there gesturing and saying, 'This is what I mean with this,' with a little video clip: I couldn't believe how normal it looked."
How will more traditional art directors and designers adapt to this medium? It might be as easy-or as difficult- as redefining roles. "I took one step backward and asked myself, What process have I been involved in?" Zamchick says. "The second I redefined myself as someone who develops ideas, all these other kinds of projects came within my jurisdiction."
But the central question remains: how easily can the VDT/keyboard combination be adapted to interactive television? "It's what we call the 1-foot vs. the 8-foot paradigm," says O&M's Flynn, who notes that so far, nobody in their tests dragged a couch close to the television screen to view it like a computer monitor. "Intuitively, the whole look and feel is different." Yet at the same time the goals remain the same. "How do you keep someone's attention and keep them enticed? It's a very creative challenge."