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State-of-the-art interactivity?

23 Mar 2005

I was recently asked to join a panel that would be judging interactive design created over the last year. The entries had been submitted by agencies and their clients, and represented some of the largest firms and brands in the world.

The judging was hard for me. As I clicked through the hundreds of submissions, I started to get an uneasy feeling. Why was all of this so bad? I mean, it was really bad. Could it be that what I have always believed to be good interaction differs dramatically from what “professionals” believe?

Most of what I saw was a strange blend of fast-paced television commercials and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I liked so much a kid. Everything was designed as over-produced “click here for the next Flash movie” interaction. Which is to say, it wasn’t interactive at all. What I quickly realized was that the work I was seeing reflected designers refusing to let go of their perceived control.

Here are the trends I noticed. They read like a summary of web design in 1997.

Flash Flash Flash Flash Whole sites built in Flash. I have respect for Flash, I really do. Go look at how Flickr uses it to manipulate and annotate images. Also note how Flickr lets you navigate and interact with the rest of the site like … well … a web site. The contest sites, on the other hand, went to great lengths to compensate for breaking the user’s navigation by designing their own navigation.

Loading… Self-contained boxes of Flash that try to entertain while they fill the pipe full of multimedia. Splash screens. Hip techno beats playing while a metaphorical gas gauge fills. Sites spending 30 seconds on this before anything happens at all. Me reaching for the back button.

Reducing interactivity Probably the most ironic design trend I noticed — the vast majority of these sites manipulated their users' environment to reduce interactivity. These were submissions, remember, to an interactivity contest. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking. Here are some of the ways in which designers tried to wrest control away from their audience:

Sounds I stopped counting how many times I tore the headphones from my ears when a site started blaring music or “interaction” cues like pops, whistles, or explosions whenever I moused over something. Am I the only one who listens to music while using my computer?

Self-assembling interfaces The site loads into a blank screen. Then, one-by-one, pieces of the navigation and content swoop onto the page to assemble into the completed design, usually with sound effects. I was continuously left wondering, “Why can’t I just start using the site?”

User-centered design vs. marketing and image Most sites had no sense whatsoever of how to engage a potential customer through the Web. Of all the consumer electronics sites I evaluated, for example, not one compared to sites like dpreview.com, a deep content web site dedicated to digital cameras. The focus was consistently on “hip and cutting-edge” music and imagery of attractive people having fabulous lives because of their recent purchase. When I buy a camera, I want to download the user manual and see sample photos taken at different qualities and resolution. Who on earth is doing marketing at these companies? Certainly no one who has taken pictures.

I realize that contests like this attract a very specific sort of entry. The submissions were a world apart from, say, the Bloggies. But that’s not what disturbs me. Rather, it’s that this is the type of mainstream, commercial design that most people run across from day to day. These are the URLs on the TV screen a dozen times an hour, hawking soap and cars and frozen pizza. These are the experiences most people have on the web, and use to form their opinions of what this new medium can be.

Maybe I’m co-opting the century-old argument that “television shows too much football and not enough opera.” But with the Web, we can actually do something about it. There are more than three channels. We can set the right example.

In other words, if you make web sites for soap, please stop sucking. ​