Interactivity: The New Standard for an Engineering Web Presence
the World Wide Web works great as a fancy display device, the real power of the Web lies in interactivity. Indeed, with the right interactive programming, an ordinary engineering Web site can be transformed into a sophisticated marketing and sales tool that offers every visitor a highly personalized, highly responsive experience.
"Multimedia applications have transformed the Web from a publishing medium to an interactive medium," says Stella Gassaway, co-author of Designing Multimedia Web Sites, published by Indianapolis-based Hayden Books. "The word 'interactive' has come to represent the most dramatic demonstrations of user control."
In essence, these next generation Web sites take advantage of a simple truth. People who take the trouble to visit business Web sites are generally extremely thirsty for information. Take the time to offer slick ways to slake that thirst, and there's a good chance a "Net cruiser" can be transformed into a Net customer.
Fortunately, one of the inspiring things about the Web is that new twists on interactivity are emerging all the time. What follows is a
sampling of key interactive elements that every next generation PM engineering Web site should consider:
Web Site Search Engines: Too many Web sites are little more than elephantine filing cabinets floating in Cyberspace. There's plenty of information, but digging for it can be irksome. On-site search engines help solve this problem by fetching very specific data. Practice with search sites like Yahoo or Excite, and then decide how you can put a search engine to use on your Web site.
Easily one of the most impressive search engines in the industry can be found at BuildNET (www.buildnet.com). Here, visitors can search for a specific industry site from the database of the nearly 1 million Web pages that the service tracks. Perhaps most interesting about the site is that BuildNET continually updates the site with automated Net robots or intelligent agents that roam the Web day and night for changes and additions associated with the industry. Colonial Engineering (www.colonialengineering.com) also offers an on-site search engine.
Data DrillsA variation on the search engine, data drills enable Web site visitors to quickly narrow their quest for information to an ever finer point. With every point-and-click, they get closer and closer to the precise data they really want. Vanderweil Engineers (www.vanderweil-com) sports an excellent data drill at its site, which visitors can use to quickly "drill down" for detail on the various types of projects Vanderweil handles.
Fraser Engineering also features a handy data drill on its home page, which offers quick links to all the major facets of the site, such as the firm's profile, employment opportunities and recent projects.
Special Interest Data DomainsWeb site designers cannot anticipate the frame of reference of every visitor that stops by. But there are certain groups of people who tend to stop by every site, and this is where a special interest data domain shines. Many Web sites, for example, offer special interest data domains devoted to information for investors
Request For-More-Info FormsAlthough they are a fundamental facet of any interactive Web site, formalized request-for-more-information forms are nevertheless still the exception on the Web. Seemingly little more than questionnaires on the Web, these forms can actually be mined to build mailing lists, analyze customer preferences and the provide a powerful tool to doing business.
Pickering Associates Engineering Firm (www.pickeringusa.com) features an excellent example of such request forms. Besides requesting general demographic data, the site also enables users to quickly indicate the kind of data they want, whether it be a company brochure or more specific information on the company's drafting services, for example.
Text-Only Option ButtonsHere's an offering where less is definitely more. While too many Web sites seem to feature every technological bell and whistle known to man, savvier Web site builders realize that many people are cruising the Net with low-power 28.8K modems and low-power PCs.
Smart Web site builders accommodate these cruisers by enabling them to click to "text only" versions of their sites. The result: These people can get to the data they want without being forced to endure interminable download times for the fancy graphics, frames, etc., which they don't want anyway.
Over-The-Net Job ApplicationsThis is a no-brainer that should be part of any Web site looking to recruit new talent. Some sites allow prospective employees to apply via free-form e-mail. Others offer highly detailed interactive job application forms, which enable the business to begin screening potential employees right off the Web. At Vanderweil Engineers (www.vanderweil.com), job hunters can peruse job openings and then apply via a pop-up e-mail box.
On-Line Mailing ListsMailing lists are a unique Internet communication tool. Besides circulating the Internet the same way e-mail does, they have the added capability of enabling all subscribers to both read and respond to messages on the list. One subscriber may post a thought-provoking message, and 15 more subscribers may respond to the list with their own reflections-which can in turn be read by everyone else subscribing to the list.
For the latest skinny on mailing lists, check out Liszt (www.liszt.com). The free service currently tracks more than 80,000 mailing lists circulating the Net.
Chat RoomsThis is the application that catapulted America Online to the premier spot among Internet service providers. Essentially, it's a place where 30 or so people can "congregate" and exchange live text messages with one another over the Net. The operative word here is "live." In a chat room, everyone gets to instantly read and respond to anything anyone else feels inspired to write on the spot. For engineers, today's "cybercooler" can be found at sites like BuildTalk (http://solOO344.dn.net: 4080).
On-Line NewslettersGoing with the theory that the longer a potential customer lingers at a Web site, the greater the chance of a sale, some firms are posting useful newsletters on their sites. Some companies enable visitors to read their on-line newsletter after they enter their contact data on an on-line interactive form. It's a quick and easy way to develop leads and visitor demographics. Entech (www.entecheng.com) offers a exceptional on-line newsletter that promotes its services.
Cool ToolsBesides the obvious on-line helpers, some firms have come up with innovative solutions to catapult their sites beyond the everyday. Stueven Engineering Consultants (www.stuevenengineering.com), for example, offers a quick link to Mapblast! Here, Stueven clients and partners can get driving directions to Stueven from anywhere in the United States. They can also use the free service to check on weather conditions in the Stueven area and print out or e-mail the map for future reference.
Meanwhile, IBC Engineering (www.ibceng.com) offers partners and clients access to pre-designated project files at its site-a major synergistic bonus for all involved. Dwyer Engineering (www.dwyer.com) is developing a similar capability at its site.
Coming attractionsAnd that, as they say, is just for starters. During the coming year, look for ever more interactive technologies that continually raise the bar on Web site responsivity.
For example, look for text-based mailing lists to begin proliferating on the Web. These mailing lists are essentially an on-line newsletter that everyone can contribute to-and everyone can read. They are currently used by thousands of commercial firms to foster a sense of community around their Web sites. Via mailing lists, businesses can stay in immediate touch with their customers' needs and concerns-while simultaneously maintaining the promotional drumbeat for their services.
But perhaps the most "bleeding edges" in the world of Web interactivity are panoramic VR Web sites, which offer visitors photo realistic, 3-D-like representations of products and environments that irresistibly suck visitors into the action.
Given that panoramic VR works best only on high-end PCs with high-speed Internet connections, the medium probably will not catch on for several years. Nevertheless, it's a technology that should be tracked, if only to be aware of what the next level of Web interactivity will be. Currently, interesting Web-based panoramic VR work is being done by firms like Infinite Pictures (www.smoothmove.com), View360 (www.view360.com), Evox Productions (www.evox.com), Communique (www.cvcmedia-com) and Infinite Pictures (www.smoothmove.com).
While some industry Web designers may grumble about the prospect of a site upgrade, it appears next generation Web sites, rooted in interactivity, will soon be considered de rigeur across the Web. And in the process, the Web will be transformed into something eminently more useful, personable-and profitable.