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Does Your Site Need Streaming Media?

by Molly Wright Steenson

Against the backdrop of streaming horror stories—unnecessary and cumbersome Flash intros, MIDI files tinkling Mozart—are sites that make excellent use of streaming technology. These sites use a variety of methods to tell a story, enhance a brand, and develop an experience. But such sites aren't all fun and games. There are strong business reasons to use streaming technologies as well.

Streaming media can help you to construct a compelling experience, and there are three main reasons to incorporate it into your site: to enhance the user experience and highlight your brand, to create a narrative, or to provide immediate content and information. But first you must decide whether streaming media is appropriate for your audience.

Consider Site Objectives

When you're thinking of incorporating streaming and other broadband media into your online experience, think about the benefit they provide. Streaming media can add interactivity to information-sharing sites, create immersive narratives, and provide immediate information in a way that flat HTML sites cannot. However, it's vital to consider who your users are—and whether they're even able to benefit from an experience that uses plug-ins or requires a lot of bandwidth.

Are your users ready for a narrative, all-encompassing experience, or do they just want to find an address? Are they likely to have the capability to view a broadband site at all, or will their processors and connections wilt under the demand?

If you're creating a barebones information site, using streaming media or creating a broadband experience may hinder your users' ability to find what they need. To provide a compelling, cohesive experience, your users' basic information needs must be considered first.

"Our best clients are the ones that already have the information systems taken care of," says Josh Ulm, creative director of ioResearch Studios, which specializes in streaming media. "They have the generic, plain-vanilla website out of the way and now they can start to do things that are beyond that—they don't need to worry about whether people are going to get that bare, essential information. That's where we can step in and say, 'Let's start to really communicate with your audience.'"

Enhance User Experience and Highlight Your Brand

Once you've decided to incorporate streaming media, there are several ways to make the transition easy for your users.

Emeril Lagasse is a Food Network personality and chef, host of "Emeril Live!" He's zany, brash, funny, and he can cook. The Emerils.com site offers a database of 3400 recipes, which is the primary reason that people visit the site.

The original version of the Emerils.com site was built entirely in flat HTML. Every time one navigational element needed updating, it had to be updated on each and every flat page across the site—on hundreds of pages.

New Emit, an Internet design collective, was contracted to incorporate Flash into the Emerils.com navigation, with an eye toward increasing the site's usability and decreasing production time. At the same time, designers had to avoid alienating or confusing the site's existing users when they included Flash (especially users who didn't have the plug-in).

"When someone wants to find information quickly, you can use Flash. But you shouldn't make the user have to try to learn," New Emit chief technologist Frank Conway says. "When they're going to the site for entertainment purposes, you can make them jump through hoops. But if they're coming to your site because they want to get content, you shouldn't make them learn the Internet again."

New Emit's CEO and creative director, Brett Calzada, agrees. "It's good to build rich content, but it's critical that the content be accessible to a vast majority of your audience."

New Emit developers used Flash to simplify the site for users. "We took the site from a two-click navigation to a one or even zero-click navigation," Conway explains. This simple Flash component reads variables, updates itself, and makes life easier for the production staff. It's also small, about 28Kb.

For instance, if you want to learn about Emeril's New Orleans Restaurant, you roll over restaurants, move slightly to the right, and roll over Emeril's New Orleans. Without clicking or having your page covered, you can obtain quick information about the restaurant's location and phone number. By clicking, you visit a page that goes into greater detail about the restaurant.

To prepare visitors for the new navigation, New Emit created small Flash movies of an animated Emeril that would appear over the weeks leading up to relaunch. A user without the Flash plug-in would see a message saying that the site could be enhanced with the Flash player. By the time the new navigation launched, users were accustomed to Flash. "It was a painless transition," Conway says.

Incorporating the Flash navigation gave Emerils.com an additional opportunity to brand the site, and bring in the specific character of Emeril Lagasse, says Brett Calzada. "We wanted to work some narrative into the site, to fulfill the Emeril identity—that crazy, zany cook—and start taking it to the next level."

The animated Emeril character participates in the site. "You feel like Emeril's there all the time—he's over there looking in, blending in with the overall idea," Calzada says. Over time, this use of Emeril, as well as snippets of the television show "Emeril Live!" will blend into the navigation. The miniature television screens in the navigation will showcase parts of the show.

Emerils.com remains largely an information-driven site, where most people go to find relevant recipes quickly. New Emit was able to incorporate Flash into the site and enhance the user experience, as well as substantially cut development costs and time (85% in monthly maintenance costs, and 93% in creating a new content section, with a total of a 60% reduction in monthly maintenance hours).

As for gratuitous Flash, the New Emit team is thumbs-down. "If your site has to have a link on it that says, 'Skip Intro,' you've done something wrong," says Conway. "Those Flash intros are completely pointless."

Rather than providing a splash screen for users, find ways to extend that experience. Conway suggests incorporating those splashy messages into the site. "Don't bombard the user in the first five seconds, when the user isn't entirely sure they want to be on the site in the first place."

Extracted from New Architect: Internet Strategies For Technology Leaders.

 

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