MORE THAN eye CANDY

Feb 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

There’s a time and place for everything. And when it comes to developing a Website, it’s easy to get carried away with all the technological bells and whistles. Sure, offering cool swirling graphics or fun animated characters might enhance the interactivity of your site, but does it really compel a visitor to make a purchase?

That’s the question Website designers and marketers grapple with every day when it comes to creating a compelling, engaging, and profitable site. And there’s no simple answer.

When used properly, design tools such as Flash and Shockwave allow the customer to have a totally interactive online shopping experience. But if the technology is used just for technology’s sake – what is commonly referred to as eye candy – it can make the shopping experience more cumbersome, and more frustrating for consumers. And that, in turn, may keep them from coming back.

“Use the `wow’ technology as an option, not a necessary component to enjoy the site or to purchase products,” suggests Bridget Fahrland, assistant director of strategy and planning for Fry Multimedia, a Web developer and marketing company based in Ann Arbor, MI. “Let the consumers choose when they want to see a special interactive application.”

This advice is especially important when using technologies such as Java applets, which, according to Michael Cohen of Website and CD-ROM developer Millstar, don’t always run well on America Online. “If a good portion of your customers are using AOL to access the Web, then you want to stay away from something as simple as Java,” he says.

Here, we take a look at several popular technological design tools: what they are, how they work, and when they’re best used.

Flash

What it is: The Flash design and authoring program from San Francisco-based Macromedia allows Web designers to create cartoons, animation, flowing text, charts, and other high-impact graphics. Unlike bitmapped images such as GIFs and JPEGs, Flash images fit into compact files, making download times faster. Flash images can also adapt to multiple display sizes and resolutions.

How it’s used: Many of today’s leading online marketers, including Banana Republic, The Gap, and Eddie Bauer, incorporate some sort of Flash-based images on their Websites. Flash supports sound, animation, and interactivity, as well as high-quality images. Navigation can be enhanced via Flash by hiding information that suddenly appears when the mouse is placed over a button or a word. Flash also allows you to create moving text, such as having a promotional message scroll across the screen.

The latest version enables consumers to drag and drop images and information about products into the virtual shopping cart’s order forms; that information is then stored in the company’s database, similar to how HTML allows data to be stored. “Flash does everything HTML does and more,” says Doug Gray, creative director for Cambridge, MA-based 216 Design, the creative agency arm of Banta Integrated Media. “It’s no longer just an animation tool but a real development tool.”

When to use it: “Flash is great when you want to demonstrate a product, or even put on an online fashion show that uses streaming video,” says Ken Burke, president/CEO of Petaluma, CA-based Web design and marketing firm Multimedia Live.

Drawbacks: To view Flash images, consumers must download Macromedia’s Flash Player. And some consumers are still intimidated when it comes to downloading plug-ins. “Designers have to be judicious when using Flash,” Burke cautions. “Not every consumer has the ability to view Flash, and you don’t want to create an expectation and then not be able to deliver.”

Independent research studies from International Data Corp. and NPD, however, found that 88% of Web browsers already have Flash Player installed, and more than 185 million computer users worldwide can view Flash immediately. Still, most Web developers advise marketers either to offer an HTML alternative to the Flash images or to build only a few Flash-based Web pages.

Shockwave

What it is: Macromedia’s Shockwave software is used to display more-complex Web applications, such as online games, business presentations, and animated advertisements. It was spun off from Macromedia’s Director program, which is often used for CD-ROM graphics, and has its own scripting or programming language called Lingo.

How it’s used: The Sharper Image Website uses Shockwave in combination with a 3-D technology to demonstrate such products as its CD Shower Companion. Visitors can flip, turn, and swivel the image of the product as well as zoom in to get a better look. Since Sharper Image installed Shockwave content in 1998, page views for the CD Shower Companion alone increased 300%, and total online sales have grown 200%, according to Greg Alexander, senior vice president of MIS for the San Francisco-based cataloger/retailer.

When to use it: “It’s a great application for an interior-design-type Website,” says Fry Multimedia’s Fahrland. “Shoppers can arrange furniture, view various room layouts, and decide if they want the product or not.”

Drawbacks: Although IDC found that 108 million Internet users can view Shockwave, consumers must first download the Shockwave Player plug-in to take advantage of the the program’s interactivity. Shockwave movies or content may also take longer to download or view, and may be jagged or bitmapped. So, Fahrland cautions, “you have to give alternative options to view the product for people who don’t have the technology, or don’t want it.” A simple button that asks users whether they want to view the Shockwave content or not should suffice.

3-D/virtual reality

What it is: Sometimes thumbnail images of products aren’t enough to get someone to buy, especially for detailed products such as apparel and jewelry. Virtual reality, or 3-D imaging, technology allows consumers to see the finest details, view every angle, eye the texture, and get as near to touching the product as possible.

How it’s used: Apparel marketers Lands’ End and Nordstrom use 3-D technology to create virtual models and dressing rooms. Shoppers at Lands’ End can create a computerized 3-D model of themselves based on coloring, height, and body measurements. They can then put together virtual outfits in different colors. Nordstrom allows visitors to move a model with the click of the mouse so that they can view the product from all sides. While shoe and accessories cataloger/ retailer Nine West doesn’t enable visitors to create models in their image, it does allow users to zoom in on products to view the textures, or examine buckles and other details.

When to use it: Although the technology has a long way to go before it is truly universal, “three-dimensional technology makes sense for apparel marketers,” says Ken Cassar, an analyst with online marketing research firm Jupiter Communication’s Digital Commerce Group. “Catalogers have trained customers to accept two-dimensional imagery in print catalogs, but 3-D images represent the real potential of the Internet.”

Drawbacks: Virtual reality images are often jagged and bitmapped, though vendors are coming out with better programs. And while some products, such as Hewlett-Packard’s IPIX technology, do not require viewers to download plug-ins, others, including Apple’s Quicktime VR and Shells Interactive Spike, do. So if the technology “is not relevant to the product and a consumer’s decision to buy it, such as office supplies, then don’t use it,” says Multimedia Live’s Burke.

Digital audio

What it is: There are two standards for digital audio formats: Real Audio, which uses streaming audio so that the users can click on something and hear sound immediately, and MP3, for downloadable music. With MP3, users download the music file to their hard drive and then play it back. MP3 files take longer to download than Real Audio files, but the quality is better. For both, the users need “players,” pieces of software that act like CD players.

How it’s used: Online music sellers such as CDNow, BMG, and Amazon.com allow users to download song clips via MP3 technology to boost sales. “Offering downloadable music for an online music cataloger is the only way these marketers will be able to stay ahead of the competitition,” says Doug Gray of 216 Design.

When to use it: Digital audio could also be used to describe the features of the product. “A cataloger could employ digital audio technology to narrate the product description alongside the copy text,” Burke says. “Not every consumer wants to read text. A nice friendly voice describing the product could go a long way in selling that product.”

Drawbacks: If the users don’t have the player software, digital audio will be wasted on them. And while you might think you’re enhancing the shopping experience by providing incidental background music, the music could frustrate or annoy consumers, just as Muzak in fast-food restaurants sometimes does. “Sound on a Website should be the choice of the consumer,” Fahrland says.

Most of the bells and whistles that Web designers talk about are used primarily on consumer-oriented Websites. But should business-to-business marketers use animation, fancy graphics, or digital audio on their sites as well?

Not always, say Michael Cohen, corporate accounts director for Millstar, a b-to-b Website and CD-ROM developer in Langhorne, PA. “Some of the decision to use the technology should be based on the audience you’re going after and their Internet capabilities,” he says. “The goal for most of our b-to-b clients is to have their Websites run fast. Eye candy may slow down the process,” depending on how big the files are and which technology is used.

But there are times when technology such as 3-D may work for a b-to-ber. An engineering site, for example, may want to use software that allows computer-assisted design (CAD) drawings to display the specifics of the product. “There has to be a specific business or functional reason to use the interactive technology,” Cohen says.

Not long ago, HTML was the de facto Website language standard. But just as marketers have become more sophisticated in their ways of selling products online, so have programming languages become more advanced. But the more sophisticated programming and markup languages aren’t necessarily your best bet – at least not yet.

Take Java, a computer programming language that can be used to create small, compiled application programs called applets. When a browser encounters an applet reference on a Web page, the browser loads the applet from the server onto the visitor’s computer, then executes the applet.

Websites that offer instant stock quotes, for example, are usually programmed with Java applets. “Java applets are also useful with 3-D images as well as for conducting polls on Websites,” says Doug Gray, creative director for Cambridge, MA-based 216 Design, the creative agency arm of Banta Integrated Media. But they can slow download times, especially for users with lower-speed connections, and America Online subscribers in particular are said to have a tough time with the applets.

Java’s sibling programming language, Javascript, does not come in the form of applets. Instead, the script is embedded in the HTML file for the page, enabling it to execute faster than a Java applet. It’s useful for such applications as changing the background color of the page dynamically.

HTML also has a sibling – or rather an extension: Dynamic HTML, or DHTML. Designed to be the new standard in markup languages, DHTML allows for designing graphical scroll bars, drop-down bars, and buttons. It also allows designers to lay one graphic image over another effortlessly and without it looking clunky or messy.

“DHTML vs. HTML is like Windows vs. DOS,” says Ken Burke, president/ CEO of Petaluma, CA-based Web design and marketing firm Multimedia Live. “DHTML is the ideal graphic user’s interface, but it’s not been widely accepted.”

That’s largely because “DHTML affects the entire site,” says Bridget Fahrland, assistant director of strategy and planning for Fry Multimedia, a Web developer and marketing company based in Ann Arbor, MI. In other words, a designer must reprogram the whole site to take advantage of its capabilities. What’s more, not every consumer’s browser supports DHTML yet. “You’d have to wait until everyone can view DHTML, or build two separate sites,” Fahrland says.