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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Give me the site, but hold the uninvited video

October 1, 2007

I can still remember when vacation movies were captured on 8mm film and had to be shown on jerky little projectors with hot bulbs that gave off ozone by the bucketful. Fascinating to the family that took the movies, but deadly dull to everyone else.

Then along came video cameras that were much more portable and could show their movies on the family VCR. They had many advanced features, such as zoom, stop action, and even dubbing. And they were still boring, for the most part. I'm sorry, but they are. Everyone thinks their movies are indie masterpieces, but few are.

This kind of artistic misjudgment follows us to the Web, as all too many Web site owners have opted to use their sites more for ego than for business impetus. And now what's the hottest new bauble to hang on an already overly decorated site? That's right-video!

The Web has a long history of encouraging too many misfiring attention-getters. There were marquees that scrolled in all capital letters. There were animated graphics that walked or flapped in place. There were broad patches of text that blinked. There were graphics that blinked. There were raucous sounds or awful music. Sometimes all these things were done at once, not only making the site all but unusable, but nearly prompting epileptic episodes.

As time wore on, designers became more sophisticated and the worst of the offending elements were banished. But the idea of somehow mesmerizing the visitor lived on, and gave rise to Flash. Whenever you see movie-like activity on a site, it's likely to be Flash. YouTube movies are in Flash. Lest designers accuse me of bashing Flash, I think it has its uses. Check out the Manning Meter on the Indianapolis Star site (www.indystar.com). You can scroll left and right among the great quarterbacks of the game, comparing Peyton Manning with them on career completions, career passing yards, and career touchdowns. It's a nice little visual aid. Good use of Flash.

But unfortunately, Flash has become more than a tool; it's a craze. Flash is on sites where it has no reason to be. What's become all too common is the "splash screen" you see before you get in to an actual Web site. The splash screen is usually some arty sequence of things appearing and disappearing on screen, followed by the visitor looking in annoyance for a link that says "skip this silly thing". Then you go on to the actual site. It's as if the designers conferred over the best way to hold visitors out of the site for as long as possible. Flash can even become an industry fad. For example, the entire faucet industry seems to be enamored of Flash. Almost every faucet company has a Flash component showing product or women fading in and out onscreen. For selling faucets? Does that industry imagine the whole world is a trade show?

As senseless as Flash usually is, there's something I find even less useful, and that's video. Granted, if a visitor is supremely captivated by your product and wants to see online demonstrations and sales presentations, maybe video will work. But just assuming visitors will be mentally snagged and held by a video is a dangerous supposition. Web visitors aren't like people walking by a kiosk, nor are they like television viewers. They have even more control than they do over a DVD player or Tivo.

Web visitors have a fiercely proprietary viewpoint. You may think you own your site, and maybe you do, but it's the Web visitor who owns the Web. All control is in his hands. Push something on him he resents, and he'll be gone. Videos qualify as uninvited material. They take forever to load on slow connections, they take up real estate that might be better used for something else the user really wants to see, they often include intrusive sounds, and they're generally not interesting. In all too many cases, the videos are marketing kerfuffle, talking heads or the equivalent of home movies. It's a rare user who will protest that a site didn't hit him in the eye with a video right off.

I've even seen videos with a single talking head, and when the head was done talking, the person in the video just froze in place, staring at you. That's a creepy way to greet your customers. Badly done videos can also get "stuck" on the page, making a video seem to gradually disappear from its frame as you scroll.

If you need to use videos, make them optional, so the visitor has control over whether to see them. Nobody wants to be reminded of the bad old days, when we had to sit through Uncle Jimmy's home movies. Unlike in those days, Web users of today won't sit still for it.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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