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Over the last several months, we’ve been discussing with our clients the value of user experience. I’ve noticed a shift in our industry, one that I think is worth mentioning.

First, a bit of history. EffectiveUI started as a Flash development  company – Me, Andy, Drew, Geoff, Jim, Sean, RJ; all were admiring our ability to write beautiful code in AS3. At some point (I think it was at the time they all decided to kick me out of the development team:), we realized that there was more to what we were doing – we were all uniquely focused on creating more user friendly software… a focus on the UI. The term everyone started using : rich Internet applications. We liked it better than “Web 2.0″, because it was more descriptive – and it made us believe that we were part of a more unique, niche movement of developers that loved well designed software. When we added Lance to the team, our eyes were opened wide to the power of designer/developer collaboration. “Rich” really meant all kinds of interesting things… brand consistent, animation, skip intro, emotive experience, high design, useful… etc.

But times have evolved, our customers have evolved.

I’m not saying that we have evolved beyond the features of the RIA platforms – I’m saying that all software will need to live up to the original RIA standard. The original standard was simply: “make software that is connected, engaging, and respects user adoption over technical integration” – something we are all now calling a “focus on user experience”.

Marketing buzz words have value. “Social Networking”, “Web 2.0″, “Semantic Web”, “Cloud Computing”, “Rich Internet Applications” – but they also all typically have a shelf life. I’m suggesting “RIA” has reached this point. All great software from now on will be “rich Internet applications”, so the term “RIA” has no meaning. It no longer adds any truly descriptive value to the conversation.

Imagine a hollywood director today pitching a movie simply on the idea that he would film it in color… We need to stop stop talking about RIAs as though they are novel and understand that all software needs to value user experience and the connected world.

Your corporate brand is more than just your logo or your jingle. Your brand is also the emotion raised when someone thinks about your company.

When you see the golden arches and the familiar red “M,” your mind recognizes more than simply the McDonald’s logo. It conjures up great value, the smell of hot French fries and the good times you have there with family and friends.

In your products and services, in your advertising and promotion, in the voice of your receptionist, in the attitude of your employees, people interact with your brand continuously. Every touch point of your organization has to reflect a consistent message about your brand value.

However, since the advent of the Web, never in the history of marketing have companies delivered brand disappointment in such appalling ways. Useless websites and horrible user experiences result in frustrated customers who not only abandon your brand, but tell their friends to do so as well. Enter “Web 2.0″, replete with technology that empowers organizations to make people feel good and simplify their lives.

 

WHY RICH INTERNET APPLICATIONS?

Rich Internet Applications, or RIAs, enhance your brand image in many ways. A well-designed RIA entices people to your brand. It delivers an engaging, immersive experience. It speaks to the brand promise with functionality and interfaces that stagnant web pages cannot. RIAs build brand value by making people’s interaction with your brand a more valuable, productive and pleasant encounter.

Unfortunately, we’ve all had more than a few bad online experiences that have left a poor taste in our mouths. We’ve waited on too many pages to refresh. We’ve clicked forward and back too many times to find hotel rates and vacancies. We’ve been unable to see all the seats in the arena when buying concert tickets. All too often, e-tailers actually make it difficult for us to give them our money and don’t do anything to up-sell, which results in lost opportunities.

If your company seeks to differentiate itself, you have to go beyond a basic paged-based Web presence. If your brand promises that you have elegant products, the online experience you give your customer has to match that — visually, emotionally and functionally.

Think of a good RIA as having left-brain and right-brain attributes. The left brain represents utility, functionality, navigation and usability. The right brain represents emotion — the compelling, immersive and interactive experience. Both must deliver on the brand promise.

DISCOVERY NETWORK FULFILLS ITS BRAND MISSION WITH EARTH LIVE

The name “Discovery” is synonymous with learning and knowledge, attributes that are powerfully evident in EffectiveUI’s RIA, called Discovery Earth Live. Consistent with the high production values of the network’s on- and offline media programming, the site offers crisp imagery and high-quality video in imaginative and educational ways.

The unique part of the experience is its highly interactive interface. Graphic overlays appear on a 3-D globe that users can spin with a flick of a mouse, and watch it continue to move with virtual momentum, just like a physical object. The globe is more than a flashy gimmick. Site visitors can use it to engage with high-value content like environmental news stories and field reports from experts in environmental science.

The challenge we faced when we set out to build this RIA is that we needed the application to digest and visually display massive amounts of very complicated and sophisticated environmental data from NASA and NOAA and “consumerize” it. The Earth Live RIA successfully added value to Discovery’s brand by offering their audience access to important scientific data in an easy-touse, highly immersive and entertaining interface.

We pushed the boundaries of available technology to build this application, and we encourage our designers and developers to do this, too. The result helps Discovery Network extend their brand image not only as a knowledge leader, but as a technology innovator as well. The site had 160,000+ unique visitors in the first three months, and is on track to garner more than 1.5 million users within the first year. It was featured on the cover of PC World, May 2008, as part of the Best Free Stuff: 101 Web Services and Downloads feature, and has received numerous other industry accolades and awards.

NOT JUST FOR CONSUMERS

The brand value of RIAs is not limited to customerfacing applications. Brand value can also be enhanced when RIAs are used as everyday internal operational tools in myriad ways across all vertical markets, such as financial services, business-tobusiness, government, healthcare and transportation, to name a few.

For instance, United Cargo delivers same-day packages on United Airlines flights. Their smallpackage delivery (SPD) service ships urgent parcels, such as transplant organs, flowers, fresh foods and anything else that needs to arrive in a few hours.

While United Cargo’s on-time delivery was commendable and customer satisfaction was high, management felt it could be higher. They came to us to build an RIA that would streamline the end-to-end workflow and better track packages throughout their route system.

Previously, a customer-service representative had to access multiple pages from the company’s intranet in order to upload the package information, go to another site to make sure everything was TSA compliant, and then click through some more screens to verify billing and tracking information. Meanwhile, consumers had to sit and wait while the representative navigated through the morass. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

Now, instead of struggling through a series of “green screens” all day, United Cargo representatives interact with an intuitive, lightning-speed, visually compelling environment that significantly reduces the number of steps required to access critical package-delivery information. Best of all, the RIA is easy to learn, which eases the burden of training resources.

The RIA also decreases employee frustration, which in turn makes people’s jobs a whole lot more pleasant. The average call time with a customer has dropped, so the customer’s experience when dealing with the brand is further enriched. By streamlining the internal process of tracking SPDs, United Cargo improved its external customer service. Better service reflects the brand’s core attributes of being efficient, reliable and fast.

HOW TO IMPROVE THE ONLINE EXPERIENCE

In a recent Forrester report, analyst Ron Rogowski reported that enterprise executives cited “improving online experience” as their top priority in the coming year. Smart executives recognize that RIAs can significantly increase the value of their brand. Properly executed, RIAs improve the user experience and allow companies to differentiate themselves from competitors. Better yet, companies who are leveraging RIAs position themselves to “leapfrog the field.”

However, RIAs are not for the faint of heart. Internal IT departments typically lack the expertise to build an RIA themselves, and do not have the resources to maintain an in-house lineup of RIA specialists. While your organization may own video equipment, would you ask your design department to produce a network television commercial? Similarly, an RIA developed by your IT department, while being fully functional, may look like an IT department built it.

On the other hand, you need your IT department to work closely with RIA specialists to integrate smoothly with existing infrastructures, tie to back-end databases and help ensure the firm understands the benefits of RIA adoption. Beyond the technical expertise and design talent, you’ll need miles and miles of user research, stacks of strategy sessions and a strong roster of interaction designers, user experience designers and information architects to pull it off. Typically, a company will work with an organization like EffectiveUI when they first undertake an RIA project. From there, we have been very effective in helping organizations migrate their internal teams toward fully embracing RIA adoption.

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