Im as guilty as anyone of using "information technology" as a catchall phrase, even when it comprises two quite different kinds of tools. There are systems that deliver entertainment, and there are systems that enable decisions. I prefer not to see those tasks confused.
Unfortunately, irrelevant entertainment is pushing its way into decision support environments, while rising decision workloads complicate leisure. Successful content creators and application developers will stay focused on the kind of experience they want to deliver, reminding themselves of the audience theyre trying to serve.
Web sites with too many graphics, using elaborate presentation aids, get in the way of someone whose only goal is deciding what to do next. Google, of course, is famous for the spare, uncluttered design of its Web-search portal at www.google.com.
Financial services companies such as Charles Schwab (www.schwab.com) also keep the gingerbread to a minimum. These sites invest your bandwidth in delivering data and offering links to additional information, not in merely ornamental bits.
Could Charles Schwab increase the hits on its Web page with video clips of the days financial statistics presented by swimsuit models, with user-selectable gender? Probably. Would this do anything for its business? Doubtful. Theres no point in entertaining people who arent your target customers, but an online operation that judges its success by page views may forget this.
Not using swimsuit models but operating at almost that decorative extreme are the sites of watchmakers Seiko (www.seikousa.com) and Rolex (www.rolex.com). Neither site will let you past its opening screen without demanding the latest multimedia helper applications, such as Flash or QuickTime. One would think that the companies goal would be to show you a watch and tell you where you could buy it, but at least one person from each operation seems to think that high-end wristwatch buyers need movies on their PC screens to get them excited.
Memo to the timepiece tycoons at both companies: I suggest that the more time someone spends in front of a Net-connected computer, the less likely that person is to need a watch at all. What about getting the potential buyer to the goods as quickly as possible?
Online retailers, especially at this time of year, know the perils of failure to focus. In their world, the results of such errors are measurable, immediate and possibly devastating. The result is that retailers quickly learn what works. Their lessons should be taken to heart by designers working in other domains where the costs of doing things wrong may take more time to emerge.
Retailers have learned, for example, that its important to show the user how several choices will combine to create an overall result. In selling clothing, for example, theyve found that the color of an item thats shown in a photo of a model will outsell other colors that are only shown as swatches or as pictures of the garments alone. When the user can click on an alternate color and see the model photo change to match, that differential preference disappears.
Whether youre selling sweaters or designing a Web site for end-of-year employee-benefits enrollments, this same idea applies: Show people the cumulative, packaged result of all the selections that theyve made, and theyll have more confidence that there has not been some obscure interaction among their choices. Theyll be less likely to make the phone call or send the e-mail that asks for clarification—and greatly increases the cost of completing the transaction.
If I just consume the content, part of the value of what Im buying is an experts skill in packaging the experience—its a cop-out to make me design the experience and call it interactive.
But if my interest in the content is to make me more comfortable in making a choice, I do want to be able to go where I please in seeking additional details or alternative viewpoints. I dont want others, such as the designers of the Dell site at www.dell.com, to tell me what path or what process to follow. And I dont want to wait for Rolexs or Seikos irrelevant gimcrackery to get out of my way.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.