“Did you see my website?”

Chances are, you have asked that of others many, many times. But that seemingly innocent question masks the essential problem with the vast majority of websites on the Internet today. Even today we see far too many web sites that are essentially pamphlets. We used to call websites that start at the home page and navigate in a linear fashion “brochureware” because they work like a brochure. Some still do, and proudly so.

You see, the Internet is not an interactive medium. It is a potentially interactive medium. The Internet really and truly is – as much as we hate to admit it – a series of tubes. The statement behind this is that the Internet is not information, it is a transportation mechanism for information. Therefore, what matters is not the tubes themselves, but what we put into those tubes.

It is 2011 (as I write this) and I’ve been in this game since before there was a Netscape. Starting then and continuing into today most of what goes up online are “pages.” You know, like a book or magazine. Or a brochure. Even this blog is nothing but a series of pages with clever links to (you guessed it) other pages.

There, I admitted it.

What Does “Being Interactive” Mean?

Being onscreen should not be considered “enough;” the challenge we should address head-on is to start using the interactivity of the Internet to be interactive. We as communicators, designers, and purveyors of usefulness should strive to deliver our ideas, messages and services in a way that allows the user to really engage. Content on a screen (again, I’m busted) describes a topic. That topic makes a point. That point should leave an impression or create an impetus for action.

We’re simply not getting the maximum bang for the buck out of those tubes.

Being interactive means providing vehicles for interaction. Creating those vehicles starts with seeing content and information as data, and then identifying it’s highest and best purpose. Then it’s a simple matter of creating the right vehicle to convert that data into an experience that supports the end goal. Thus, when we say “using the interactivity of the Internet to be interactive” we are saying that interactive media such as the web are the best way we know today to make inert information and data into participatory activities.

Here are four starting points for creating a better, more interactive online presence. These are simply ways to progress the thinking of those who create your web sites – as well as your own thinking – beyond the linear “page” experience even if it’s all still contained on a page.

  • Choose Your Own Adventure – Rarely is there only one way of approaching an issue. Pre-wire several preferred approaches into a forked path and let the users explore on their own.
  • The Algebraic Approach – In almost every business situation there are constants and variables. Express the variables in a way that allows the user to change them and see the new result.
  • Original Visualization – Explore ways that your product can be presented onscreen to communicate the USP without words. Expunge “new” and “improved” and all their synonyms from any copy.
  • Mapping – All companies sit somewhere on a grid relative to their respective competition. Present such a grid and let users self-identify where they belong; are they even the right customers for you?

With something as powerful as the Internet at your disposal, it seems worthwhile to take a step back to reconsider how you present yourself and your company. Being seen is good, and being heard is okay too. But being truly interactive is where the money is.