Digital tomorrow report - Friendly interfaces.
Consumers want easier, more efficient ways to interact with
information, be it through a computer or a telephone. Liz Garone says they
are going to get them.
When Alan Kay invented the graphical user interface back in the 1970s at Xerox Parc, the choice was simple: take what he offered or continue on the path of flickering, luminescent green screens and command-line interfaces.Back
Today, the choice is more likely to be whether to go with e-commerce on the web or v-commerce (voice-driven commerce) on the phone, or whether to make your whole site 3-D or just a portion of it. And this is only the beginning. As technologies get smarter, so do user interfaces.
The internet and PC are no longer necessarily king and queen when it comes to user interfaces. An old standby, the telephone, has entered the court. It really doesn't matter whether your customers have the latest cellular phone or are still in the Dark Ages with a Ma Bell rotary dial phone - they can access some of the newest interfaces in the form of voice portals. Take HeyAnita, for example, which offers consumers free access to stock, sports, news and email via an 800 number. No buttons to push, just a friendly voice that prompts them to speak short, simple commands, such as "stocks," followed by the name of the stock they want to check.
There are four reasons why marketers are - and should be - choosing voice: cost savings, customer satisfaction, revenue and differentiation, according to Steve Chambers, VP of worldwide marketing for voice recognition software firm SpeechWorks. "The phone is the most commonly deployed technology in the world. You can reach all the current web users when they're offline, in their cars or when they're mobile, and you can reach the 150 million Americans who aren't online yet," says Chambers. "Speech can allow companies to reach more people and create an audio-only branded experience in the process. Rather than being pleasantly surprised that companies use that option, I think the public will come to expect it."
Chambers doesn't want people to make the mistake of thinking that companies like his are simply funneling the web into the phone. "It's not like we're taking a visual web page and making it available over the phone," he says.
"What we're doing is designing the optimum user experience for callers given that some of the data they'll be retrieving is the same as that which they could get on the web. We're pulling the data from a core database."
Voice won't be limited to the telephone. Computer users can expect to be able to download the appropriate plug-ins and simply state where they want to go on the web, as some are already doing in their vehicles (see page 58).
Or maybe it's a whole new identity your customers are expecting. In that case, they can visit a site like Jester.com and assume the persona of one of dozens of avatars, or alter egos, and engage in 3-D chat (see sidebar at right).
If they want to take charge of their cellular phone, you can offer them Wildfire, a virtual assistant that uses speech recognition to help customers manage telephone, fax and email. The user simply speaks the commands into the phone, and the software responds. She (female is Wildfire's only gender so far) dials, announces callers, remembers numbers and organizes messages.
"It's all about the interface. It's all about humanizing communications," says Wildfire's product marketing manager Mike Hartnett. "Our mission is to develop these personal assistants, because that's an analogy that people feel comfortable with and to some degree trust more because of the fact that it's human-like."
The idea of Wildfire is reminiscent of the Miss Boo character, whose wry observations enhanced the shopping experience at the original Boo.com and are still a feature of the relaunched site. Well executed, these virtual characters help users relate to a brand and a site. User-friendliness is paramount, says Hartnett. "Marketers will be hamstrung unless they can come up with a way for (what they do) to be simply and easily understood and consumed by people. Humanizing communications is what we're all about."
That's why Wildfire has gone as far as hiring a psychologist to decide what people want in a personal assistant. The company also has copywriters who help design Wildfire's persona. Currently operating in four countries, Wildfire uses different levels of "sassiness" depending on what country she's in, with England the least sassy, Italy at the other end "taking sassy to a whole new level," and France and the US somewhere in the middle, according to Hartnett.
While companies like Wildfire, HeyAnita and SpeechWorks are focusing their energies on the telephone, other companies involved in creating better user interfaces are firmly planted on the internet. 3-D specialists such as RichFX and Viewpoint are helping brands from Manolo Blahnik to Sony give their products a three-dimensional online presence. And next-generation web site operators would be smart to consider 3-D, or at least devote a portion of their sites to it, argues J.P. McCormick, chairman of Activeworlds.com, a builder of 3-D environments. New avenues for ad dollars are plentiful with these new interfaces, he says.
"On a traditional 2-D web page, you get a banner advertisement or pop-up window that puts an ad out. But in the case of 3-D, the ads are integrated in the environment," says McCormick, much like product placements in films.
"For example, in a (virtual) city square, you might have billboards on the buildings. They're part of the environment. Yet, just like some billboards, these ads are very effective."
So effective that on a site like Cybertown.com, which offers both banner and immersed advertising, the difference is 10-to-1: banners garner a 0.5 percent click-through rate, says Michael Grekkin, marketing director for Blaxxun.com, which helped build the online community, while immersed sponsorship and advertising on the site realizes a four to five percent click-through rate.
"From a revenue standpoint, it's a great way to have advertising and sponsorships," says Grekkin. "The big complaint now is that banners have become background noise. But within these virtual worlds, these immersed sponsors and advertisers are now part of the environment, and users interact with those ads at a much higher rate."
CASE STUDY - JesterDigital uses 3-D
Faced with the stiff challenge of attracting and retaining Napster-happy teens and music listeners in their 20s to a web site that charges for downloadable music, JesterDigital created a user interface and online experience it hoped would rival Sony's PlayStation, and one that makes buying music an adventure.
At Jester.com, visitors first download a small plug-in. They can then choose an online alter ego, which is referred to as an avatar, and maneuver through the site in their new persona.
"Any user can go into Jester and select the avatar that they like best, and that will be their representation in the world," says Osman Longa, Jester's director of 3-D. Using Blaxxun.com 3-D technology, Longa and his staff have created more than 30 unique avatars from which visitors to the site can choose.
It won't be long before 3-D becomes more than just a value-added feature, according to Longa. "It's the future of the web. People will get to understand it a lot more and come to expect the best sites to include it."
Jester has made sure not to alienate people with slower connections to the web. "We made a conscious decision to appeal to the broadest number of people possible, and we have designed the rooms with this principle in mind," explains Longa. Rooms are between 100K and 250K in size.
JesterDigital founder and CEO John Textor isn't too concerned about how quickly broadband gets here. "The slower it moves, the more competitive we are," comments Textor. "There are a whole bunch of guys that have developed rich 3-D experiences. None of them, except Jester, are doing it efficiently over dial-up. The longer it takes for bandwidth to come to us, the more customers we can get, the more web sites I can rebuild, the more bands I can showcase, the more people are impressed with what we do, because we do it over a 28.8K or a 56K modem."
Customers are not going to settle for anything less than they have come to expect in the real world, says Textor. And the web in its current 2-D incarnation isn't there yet.
"The user experience is really going to be the battleground in the next generation of the internet," says Textor. "We want to be the most navigable, richest, community-driven experience on the web."