Web site designs get personal

Web site design has been largely an anything-goes affair. But Internet analysts predict
that successful government Web sites of the future will give each visitor a personalized
experience tailored to a specific need.


“Catch-as-catch-can design, massive start-from-scratch overhauls, and a hodgepodge
of features and information are no longer valid,” said Paul R. Hagen, an Internet
analyst at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.


Hagen said he advises government Web designers to embrace an action-driven interactive
structure so that visitors can get what they want quickly and efficiently.


At the same time, Hagen and other analysts expect most Web visitors’ connections
will be limited to 56-Kbps modem speeds for the foreseeable future.


John C. McCarthy, lead author of the Forrester report, Multimedia Realities, said cable
modems and similar high-speed Net ramps that promise a hundredfold faster access will not
be broadly available before 2001. He said bloated Web sites that take eons to download
will be ignored by the users they were supposed to serve.


McCarthy also warned against Web site applications that require downloading special
browser plug-ins.


He advised government site designers to play it safe and stick to applications that run
seamlessly with plug-ins already present in the 4.0 versions of Microsoft Internet
Explorer and Netscape Communicator.


Despite bandwidth and plug-in limitations, government site designers still have plenty
of Web tools available to make sites compelling, customizable and interactive.


Agencies looking to give the Web-browsing public interactive access to their databases,
for example, might want to evaluate a Web site monitoring package from Open Sesame of
Cambridge, Mass., at http://www.opensesame.com. It
learns individual visitors’ data preferences over time and offers intelligent
suggestions and site guidance based on those preferences.


Open Sesame made a splash on the Net last year by offering a personalized arts and
entertainment guide powered by its software. Programmed with a patented learning agent,
the free Web service noted every click a visitor made on the site and refined the
personalized guide each time the visitor logged on.


The learning agent represents a leap beyond current data filtering technologies.
Visitors need not fill out long questionnaires in advance. Instead, the agent tracks each
user’s path through the Open Sesame site, applying artificial intelligence and
machine learning techniques to generate suggestions based on its growing knowledge.


An intriguing and unnerving feature is that Open Sesame’s learning agent can adapt
to a user’s changing interests. It even learns about temporal habits.


A daily Open Sesame user who is all business during the week and leisure-oriented over
the weekend, for example, will find over time that the site’s personalized Web page
will reflect those different aspects.


Open Sesame is not alone in the database-to-Web fusion tool market. Other contenders
include Cold Fusion from Allaire Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., at http://www.allaire.com; Jasmine from Computer Associates
International Inc. at http://www.cai.com; and Web Hub
from HREF Tools Corp. of Santa Rosa, Calif., at http://www.href.com.
 


Another market contender is Universal Web Architecture software from Informix Software
Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., at http://www.informix.com.


Agencies that plan to set up electronic commerce on the Web can study successful
industry models, Hagen said. He commended the Office Depot site at http://www.officedepot.com for its tight focus and
purposeful navigation and layout.


The site personalization at http://www.country.com
“winnows down a large reservoir of content on the fly,” Hagen said, and Egghead
Software’s site at http://www.egghead.com
“ensures that a visitor can keep shopping rather than being forced into a checkout
dead end.”


Agencies that present a Web face to the general public need compelling graphics without
breaking the bandwidth bank. One technique is the venerable slide show based on programs
such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Corel Corp.’s Presentations. The latest versions of
these and similar packages can post presentations to a Web site with minimum difficulty.


Another good tool at the government team’s disposal is panoramic virtual reality:
photo-realistic, 360-degree, 3-D walk-throughs of any environment imaginable.


“The three reactions I usually get from a user the first time are
‘Wow!,’ ‘Cool,’ or ‘Ooo,’ ” said Marty Kassowitz, a
principal at View360 Productions of Los Angeles at http://www.view360.com.
Kassowitz builds Web-based panoramic VR experiences.


Like many Web applications, panoramic VR environments should be designed to download
quickly over conventional modems. Interesting panoramic VR work is coming out of other
companies such as Infinite Pictures Inc. of Portland, Ore., at http://www.smoothmove.com; eVox Productions of Long
Beach, Calif., at http://www.evox.com; and Communique of
Indianapolis at http://www.cvcmedia.com.


After the bandwidth dam breaks sometime after the millennium, the Web as we know it
will undergo a dramatic overhaul. Until then, McCarthy advised government Web teams to
look to new Web tool entrepreneurs. 


Joe Dysart is an Internet business consultant in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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