Toward a more universal language

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Every now and then, I run across a story, statistic or quote that ignites my imagination. This time the catalyst was a tidbit on page 22 of the current issue of BtoB, in the NetMarketing Special Report "10 Great Web Sites."

The profile of quotes Fred Heller, VP-general manager, saying this about his company's online demos: "They were never just movies that you passively watched. They had buttons so you could click to zoom in on features that are important to you."

The profile continues, "Demos have been a part of the site for more than five years. ... Today's demos also embrace the globalization of Xerox's overall business, using a more universal visual language."

A more universal language. Think about your favorite Web sites. Do they effectively use images and graphics to help convey product features and benefits? Do these visual elements support the brand? Do they coordinate design elements appearing in the company's offline campaigns and collateral? Do they go a step beyond static pictures and provide interactive, streaming, mapping or 3D content? Do they refresh this content often?

More pointedly, does your Web site do any of this?

Years ago I interviewed a programmer who was working on operating system interfaces. He had decided to take classes at the Art Institute of Chicago because, he reasoned, he was working on visual environments but lacked any formal art training. After the interview, as we walked to the elevator, I asked: "If you had to choose, would you hire an artist or a computer scientist?" "Oh, an artist," he said, without missing a beat. "I can teach anybody programming."

I imagine groans from overworked marketers who serve as their company's Web administrators. (I feel your pain; BtoB relaunched its own Web site,, earlier this month.)

But the point stands. Sites that do not appeal to the eye-or miss the opportunity to use new, compelling visual technologies, including streaming video-will not win in the Darwinian battle for survival on the Web.

Visual communications is, of course, just one piece of a successful Web site. Visitors ought to expect your site to have intuitive navigation, consistent content and compelling, accurate and timely information and applications.

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