Richer interfaces spruce up e-commerce sites

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One of the dirty little secrets about e-commerce sites and applications is how often they go unused. Shopping carts get abandoned mid-stream, catalog searches go unfulfilled and b-to-b applications lie dormant. Industry watchers say at least part of the blame goes to the plain-Jane, static nature of e-commerce user interfaces.

User interface (UI) design may seem like an esoteric topic. But, as marketing execs know, presentation is just as important as content. And when it comes to e-commerce Web sites, too many are too ugly, too slow and much more static than interactive.

The solution, observers say, may come in the emergence of new design tools and smart Web servers that allow companies to build much richer, interactive Web sites that act more like software applications than HTML pages. Out are flat page designs and endless trips back to the server. In is more dynamic content that can be executed right within the Web browser for a richer, more immediate experience.

"What we’ve experienced—and it’s the first thing companies see—is an immediate, tremendous improvement in navigation," said Bruno Saint-Cast, president-CEO of Esual Software Inc., a Paris-based vendor that recently set up shop in the U.S. to push its rich-client technology. Esual’s European customer base includes Siemens AG, Xerox Corp. and Motorola Inc.

X-Internet on the way

Internet consultancy Forrester Research calls such applications the X-Internet (short for executable Internet) and claims this new approach "will redefine Internet application design," said Randy Souza, a Forrester analyst.

Some X-Internet vendors are familiar names. Macromedia Inc., whose Flash technology is prevalent in rich-media advertising and interactive Web page design, is pushing its new MX line of design tools and servers as a launch pad for X-Internet applications. It recently debuted a sample pet store Web site that shows what can be done: The site loads quickly, rarely requires customers to download a new page and steps through the check-out process without a trip to the server, delivering forms and calculating the sales total on the fly.

"A lot of people are looking at the rich-application model," said Tom Hale, Macromedia senior VP for developers.

There are also many new companies making X-Internet tools. Some of the more interesting players are: AppStream Inc., which breaks up existing applications and delivers them for local execution in a Web browser; Curl Corp., which has built a new programming language for creating interactive, visually rich browser applications; and Zaplet Inc., which focuses on rich, interactive email communications.

The cost of these applications varies, but a full company deployment is not cheap. For example, pricing for the tools offered by Curl or Esual starts at about $25,000.

Siemens used Curl’s technology to build an interactive Web dashboard that lets executives get a real-time view into how its business is doing. Edmundo Ruiz, CIO of Siemens’ mobile division, was skeptical about Curl’s promises but ultimately discovered he could build a much more powerful e-commerce application using this approach. The new application downloads 90% faster and has resulted in an 83% increase in usage compared with their previous application, Ruiz said.

Rich applications have rich b-to-b marketing potential as well. Siemens Business Service tapped rich Internet application tools from Esual to build an interactive marketing campaign for a new cell phone launch. Siemens used Esual’s tools to build an interactive, multimedia phone demo that, at just 10 Kbytes, was small enough to be delivered via e-mail.

The application "required very little bandwidth but the message that we sent was very sexy," said Michel Fortin, an account manager with the Siemens Business Service division.

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