Customer Interface: Flash is Trash

Internet surveys show one big, happy audience, but here’s what you really need to know about Forget the spinning logos and blinking links. Real people want real information and fast.

For years, the successful marketing person has had to deal with both the Suits and the Black Turtlenecks. The Suits are high-level managers who feel that marketing is a hole into which they pour money. The Black Turtlenecks are thirtysomethings on Madison Avenue whose primary interest is winning awards for their dramatic advertising designs.

Now comes the Web, and with it another group the marketer must learn to live with–the tie-dyed, Birkenstocked, longhair Wire Heads. These are the Unix programmers in the back rooms of IS departments throughout the land, and they gravitate toward the new, the exciting and the challenging. Their career goal is to end up in the Advanced Technology Department of any company that has an Advanced Technology Department. In the meantime, they create a bit of havoc for the online marketing professional.

They like to code in Java. They think VRML is a great way to navigate a Web site. Left to their own devices, they will set your logo spinning, your buttons rolling over and your Web site visitors moving on to less cataclysmic events. The Wire Heads are making a big mistake.

Bill Gallagher, president of IPub Interactive and publisher of Guerrilla Marketing Online, asked webmasters at a recent conference, “How many of you cringe when you see the words, ‘Starting Java’?” All of the hands went up. Mine, too.

I can handle a little JavaScript, but I’ve set my browser to disable Java. It takes too long to initialize and it paralyzes my entire machine in the process. In my opinion, it’s just not ready for prime time, at least out there on the Web. On an intranet, it’s a different story. You can create a wonderful world of applets and servlets to run around your intranet and you’ll save oodles of programming time when you start reusing Java components. Outstanding. Same with ActiveX.

But on your intranet, you know what configurations of which operating systems are using which versions of which browsers that have which plug-ins installed. Out on the Web there are too many possible combinations of technologies to fathom.

Gallagher advocates using the least amount of technology necessary. Use cached GIFs instead of frames. Use simple buttons instead of rollovers. Don’t use streaming anything unless it conveys some critical piece of information that cannot be divulged some other way.

Anyone out there know which Web site gets the most traffic? Yahoo, of course. Have you looked at the Yahoo home page? It’s gray. Why would the world’s busiest Web site have a boring gray background? With more than 31 million people a month hitting its home page, it is acutely aware of the overhead on its server. With billions and billions of pages served, each one has to be as sparse as possible.

But it wasn’t the 136 bits it transmits that kept it from including the string BGCOLOR=”#FFFFFF” each time. Yahoo was considering the perspective from the other side of the Web.

“There are so many video cards out there that turn a white page white-hot,” says Dave Shen, director of design at Yahoo. “It’s not so bad on a Mac, but those PCs get tiring to look at.”

Shen’s advice? Know thy customer. Yahoo puts up a beta home page for more than a month to get reaction from surfers before a big change. It makes use of browser detectors to serve up www.yahoo.com/text to those using Netscape version 1. Yes, they’re out there. Right now, Netscape 2 through 4 and Internet Explorer 3 and 4 make up the majority of visitors, so Shen says it’s going to be a while before they use any HTML tricks newer than color-filled tables.

“Fast is important,” says Shen. But what about the Yahoos themselves? Surely they’re not bugged surfing a slightly more sophisticated page with a few Shockwave files, a few Java applets and a few VRML worlds?

Turns out there’s a different problem at higher speeds-train of thought. “Please don’t make me stop what I’m doing or keep me from what I’m looking for just to download a plug-in,” begs Shen. Yes, we’ll all have gigabit wireless access from our wristwatches any minute now. Even then, it’s not a good idea to stand in the way of a data-starved site surfer.

The text version of Silicon Graphics Inc.’s home page (www.sgi.com) is one of the few home pages that is truly text only. Even the name of the company trades in its trademarked font in favor of quick-loading HTML italics. Like most companies that care for their customers, SGI conducted visitor surveys and read the e-mail to the webmaster. The result was what most Web site managers have found: The majority of people seek technical information and not entertainment. SGI shortened the number of clicks it takes to get to key information and provided more paths to the same content with fewer geegaws.

Phil Gibson, director of interactive marketing at National Semiconductor Corp., has a very clear idea about what his customers will tolerate: 8 seconds for a navigational page and 30 seconds for a data sheet. Phil is proud of his austere approach. “In 1996 design engineers clicked an average of 3.7 times per transaction with an average of one transaction per visit. In 1997 we got that down to 2.7 clicks per transaction and one transaction per visit,” he says. “We even got rid of a few JavaScripts because some versions of Netscape on a Macintosh weren’t able to use it.”
And the National Semiconductor extranet is even more Spartan. The company wants to give the fastest access possible to thousands of distributors and hundreds of salespeople.

National Semiconductor’s Team Extranet site includes templates to allow salespeople to create private pages for their customers. “Product descriptions, presentations and proposals are available to the salespeople behind a password-protected firewall,” says Gibson. “They can electronically direct the delivery of this information in electronic or in paper form to any of their customer prospects. We don’t let them get carried away with creative touches, but we do let them improve customer communication.”

Because many members of the sales force at National now use Palm devices to connect to Team Extranet, simplicity of presentation is especially important. Grabbing new leads, getting prices approved, reporting to management and more have had all the ostentation sucked out of them to make sure the information is accessible as fast as possible.

The World Wide Web doesn’t even have music on hold. It has Looking Up Host, Contacting Host, Host Contacted, Waiting for Reply and Transferring Data. By the time people actually get to your site, they don’t want to be entertained.

So round up the propeller heads in your IS department and give them a place on your Web site to play around, strut their stuff and entertain the spectators.

At playground.sun.com, Sun offers “a server operated by the Internet Engineering group of SunSoft, a division of Sun Microsystems Inc.” Silicon Graphics offers up “Serious Fun” at www.sgi.com/fun. It’s full of freeware, images and movies to play with.

Old, stodgy AT&T has The Attic at www.att.com/attlabs/attic/index.html, which it describes as a “repository of odd links, historic images, items that defy easy classification. Rummage around a bit–you never know just what you’ll find!”

There’s something odd going on at www.ibm.com/Stretch/EOS–it’s the Electric Origami Shop slated as Imagination + Technology = Fun! The Electric Origami Shop contains puzzles (“Not your average brain-benders. Plus Cliff’s toughest puzzle yet.”) and the Alien Snow Grow, where you can grow custom crystals in real-time.

But perhaps the best example of Oh-heck-it’s-only-the-Web-so-let’s-have-some-fun is the MOPy Fish page at HP (www.interactive.hp.com/fish).

The HP pet fish gains its unique personality from the way you treat it. If you feed it regularly and play with it, you will be the lucky owner of a fish with a happy disposition, a fish that is healthy and pleased to see you every morning. If, however, you aggravate your fish, it may show aggression, sulk and develop “SFA-Serious Fish Attitude.” As with natural fish, if it is neglected it will fall ill and die, simply floating to the top of its aquarium.

If you force your site visitors to wade through your aquarium of Web frivolity, they too will end up with SFA. So keep those customer-colored glasses firmly in place and don’t let the Longhair Ponytails ride roughshod over your Web site.