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Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Interactive Web.

In Web Design on October 12, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Great Art comes to life on the Web.

As we are all aware, the Internet is all about copying. Images, text and video weave their way all over the Web, without ever leaving home. While this can create problems for some, especially producers of cultural products like music, games and video, it can also open up new opportunities for discovery and exploration through Interactive tools and technologies.

While media producers continue to look for ways to protect their business, it is worth noting the many benefits of the Web. Firstly, the Web allows content producers to reach vast global audiences. These audiences are now able to respond in any number of interesting and unique ways, through YouTube and other forms of Social Media. Instead of looking at mashups and Youtube Videos as a attack on producers, perhaps it needs to seen as a sign of the viewer’s willingness to promote your content by sharing their viewing experiences with others.

Powerful interactive and broadband technologies allow content producers to bring new and innovative experiences to the Web; experiences that would never be possible offline. Galleries and Libraries are already realising the benefits of the Web and are copying and uploading rare and valuable cultural items like paintings and books and making them available on the Web. This enables them to offer better protection for rare and valuable artifacts by reduce handling without limiting access.

Recently, the famous Uffizi Gallery in Italy has brought 6 masterpieces from their own collection and made them available in Ultra-high definition free of charge until the 29 January, 2011. Visitors to the Haltadefinizioni site are able to interact with these masterpieces, to a degree that would simply be impossible in real life.

As designers we can learn from their navigation. Although the main website is written in Italian, the site is made accessible by using familiar technologies and symbols, which make it easy to follow, regardless of the user’s language. Using a series of buttons, online Viewers are able to zoom in and study the finest details of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus, right on their own desktop. Users can zoom in and study each brush stroke and examine small details, without any risk to the original painting.

In life, such a close examination would never be possible. First you need to fly to Italy, then pay to enter the Gallery only to stand behind a barrier and look at painting from a distance. By making these paintings available online Uffizi is able to reach a vast new audience of art lovers and generate public and media interest.

Effective using Interactive technologies allows users to interact with online content and each other in ways producers haven’t yet thought of. Our job as designers is to find innovative ways to encourage people to explore.

To Flash or Not To Flash

In Web Design on October 4, 2010 at 12:01 pm

The Flash Dilemma.

With the growth of dynamic websites and social media, Adobe Flash has proven, at least for some, a godsend. Flash has allowed developers to create wonderful (and not so wonderful) animated content. However as the war between Apple and Flash continues some are now looking to HTML5 as the new direction on video and audio embedding on the web. Steve Jobs at Apple has perhaps controversially, put all his eggs in the HTML5 basket. To date Flash is still not supported in either the iPad or iPhone devices. From a users perspective, this certainly makes sense. 3G and now 4G can be very expensive and anything that reduces data-loads can only be a good thing.

So what this mean for web and video developers. Will developers still be using Flash to deliver dynamic and video content to the web? the answer is: probably. Flash is currently the best supported video format on the web. So, does that mean Apple will finally come to the party? Probably not. Steve Jobs is no longer the only voice in the wilderness. With Microsoft’s IE9 now promising both CSS3 and HTML5 support and both Youtube and Vimeo now offering support for the new html5 video there is no rush for Apple to change its mind.

Apple’s track record can’t be easily dismissed. It was partly Apple and the sheer buying power of the iPod that drove music companies to finally abandon their draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM) for digital music, enabling iTunes users to convert their iTunes Store music to MP3, so it could be used in a wide range of non-Apple MP3 players. Previously this could only be achieved by burning a playlist to CD and then ripping it back into iTunes, to remove the DRM and then converting it. A small change that was not overlooked, particularly by MS Windows users, who could now convert files and load them into Windows Media Player. The player of choice for many MP3 users.

Of course, Flash is not just used for video. It’s also used for slideshows and other dynamic web content. The main problem is not just the lack of support on iPad and iPhone devices, who are still a relatively small sector of the overall market. There are also many ordinary browser users who are choosing to disable flash for whatever reason. This can be done by downloading a plugin such as Click-to-Flash or Firefox’s Flashblock addon which hides Flash under an added level of interaction.

Click-to-Flash and Flashblock mean users must click inside each and every Flash box in order to display the content and they must click again to get the video to play. While this may seem annoying to some, it does offer a greater degree of control to users. It also means users can be spared irritating Flash-based adverts and expanding banners that seem to want to take over our browsers. Remember that search engines don’t really like Flash either. This leads us to those agonising flash-sites, those which are coded entirely or primarily in Flash. Well, sorry to say, Flashblock makes short work of those. Instead of all your stunning, spinning graphics all you get is this:

Flash-based Website with a Flash blocker

Great, isn’t it? an empty box. Not only is there no content, there’s no reason for me to want to click on it to find out what it is. I’ve got better things to do than guess what your website is. It’s like calling an unknown number on your mobile, you think it’s someone important only to discover it’s one of those holiday contests.

pizza hut website

Worse are those sites, which hide their navigation an/or content under a great big Flash box or even a series of Flash boxes. This is a big no-no folks. No one wants to play hunt the content all over your website, not even for pizza.

The key here is having a fallback, either as text or a still image. Giving users an indication what is hiding under the box is the key to successfully using Flash. Here is an excellent example of making Flash work by offering a fallback image underneath the Flash box. These designers have ensured their client’s site degrades gracefully. In fact, I would argue the fallback actually looks better than the flash version. Compare for yourself.

Rivervale Hotel WebsiteRivervale Hotel site

While HTML5 may well offer a simpler means of delivering video, it isn’t going to solve the question of codecs anytime soon. One thing is clear, whatever happens to HTML5, Flash will continue to offer a convenient fall-back position for video developers. Instead of offering the same video in three different codecs, it would seem reasonable to offer Flash first with an H.264 fallback for systems such as iPhone that are unable to support Flash.

Whether browsers will fall in behind OGG Theora, an open source codec, supported by Opera and Mozilla or the proprietary H.264 codec, supported by Apple and Google (the owners of YouTube), remains to be seen. Given OGG Theora is free and H.264 costs in at some $5 million dollars a year, the choice should be obvious; however the web doesn’t always play by the same economic play book as everyone else.

So what is the simple message. By all means, keep using Flash but keep it for video and web apps only. Avoid using Flash for navigation or anywhere important. Keep in mind, more and more people will see nothing but a big empty box, where your navigation or your content is supposed to be. Not a good look.

Death of the Website: The Problem with Social Media Marketing.

In Uncategorized, Web Design on October 3, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Are web designers obsolete?

This is what happens when you let content loose on its own

Recently Smashing Magazine ran an article by Cameron Chapman. The reaction was immediate and the editors quickly found themselves under fire from hundreds of designers who felt they’d been crudely misrepresented. Many felt magazines editors were essentially of ‘biting the hand that feeds them’.

So vehement was the reaction editors were forced to post rebuttals including an interesting response by Michael Aleo along with an apology (see Cameron update, above). However, the anger remains and the discussion continues.

It’s easy for writers and content providers to overlook the design aspect and concentrate on function over form but as any designer knows, good design is supposed to be invisible. No matter, if it’s in print, on the Web, or a really cool App, a designer’s job is making sure content is the king. That’s what design is supposed to be. So, is Cameron paying us a compliment?

No, I didn’t think so either. While many of Cameron’s arguments are flawed, and they do perhaps paint a rather old fashioned, simplistic picture of the work of web designer, the article poses an interesting question about the shifting relationship between form and function on the Web. In this age of social media and RSS feeds what will become of the traditional website?

The question is not a new one, critics have been predicting the death of the website since Web 2.0 was a twinkle in O’Reilly’s eye. Despite this, the traditional website has continued to exist. A domain name is basically a brand name and, as Aleo points out, few businesses are going to willingly give up the power and control of a domain for the promise of a subdomain on Facebook.

So, What’s the problem with Social Media?

As any designer and web marketer will tell you, the key to an effective web presence is branding. A brand is about creating a consistent message, throughout your company’s online and offline material. From a branding perspective, the problem with Facebook and Twitter and so on, is that everybody’s pages, walls and whatever, basically look the same. No matter where you go, Facebook looks like Facebook, WordPress blogs look like WordPress blogs and Bloggers look like, well blogs. Even a DIY blog, still looks like a blog, largely thanks to its functionality. It’s not too hard to see why, Social Media Sites are in the business of selling themselves, they’re in business to sell your data, not your business.

Another problem with relying on Facebook or Twitter for branding, is that it requires a pre-sold audience. You can’t just join Facebook and expect to get thousands of friends. That requires work. You need to find a clever way to bring your audience to you. Sound familiar? It Should. After all no one joins Facebook for the marketing opportunities, except for media companies and their clients. Frankly, we get enough of that in our inboxes already. People join social media sites to be heard and to stay in touch with their friends. Chances are, that doesn’t include you, or your clients.

If you have to ask, it’s not you.

Another point to keep in mind, about the Web, is fashion. Nothing goes out of date faster than the Web, particularly for the young. As saying goes: anything can be cool until your parents find out. As more and more older people head for Facebook country, the younger crowd are already looking for an exit. What could be less cool than chillin’ with the olds on Facebook? Unless, of course, its chilling with some faceless corporation on Facebook.

What does this mean for Social Media Marketing. Well, it’s like those scooters that were all the rage a few years back. They were cool for about 5 minutes, until you until saw some random corporate suit riding one and then you knew the fad was over. Remember, when iPods used to be cool? Well, now everybody and their mother has got one. The marketing people are telling us the cool people are buying iPads and smart phones but for how long? 18 months ago, not having a Facebook page meant being social outcast, now, with recent privacy issues still largely unresolved, Facebookers are starting to wonder why they ever bothered.

For these reasons, Social Media, no matter how cleverly designed, won’t replace a properly designed branded website. It’s simply not designed to. Just as you need amazing content to convince your audience to listen, you also need amazing design and functionality to convince them to stay. That’s the simple reason Websites are still the grandfather of the web; it’s because a website always was, and still is, the easiest way to create lasting impression on the Web.