Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Missing the Mark

Clickz reports today on the unveiling of a "Sprite-branded marketing campaign targeting teens today, showcasing the first fruits of its newly-expanded Branded Entertainment and Experiences Team."
The mini-site stars Sprite's mildly amusing/annoying Miles Thirst action figure, who hosts a basic media site featuring playlists from ten top DJs. Users can add Miles-styled emoticons while IMing on MSN Messenger and listen to new music on the Sprite-branded "Thirst" radio.

Gayle Troberman is the director of MSN's Branded Entertainment and Experiences Team which works, says Clickz, "to create new opportunities for marketers to talk 'to' people, not 'at' them." Troberman says,
There's nothing more interesting than a consumer inviting a brand into their world. As a marketer, you have to be creative about adding value, and make sure you give them something they don't have. Once you do that, it's magic.
Uh-huh. Talk is cheap. Can the MSN Team deliver?

Because I do a lot of work on sites for children and teens, I've been reading the Nielsen Norman Group's new report, Teenagers on the Web: Usability Guidelines for Creating Compelling Sites for Teens. Its list of 60 usability design guidelines strongly confirms what we already know: Creating sites for teens is one of the greatest challenges on the Web. Like adolesence itself, successful teen sites must walk a fine line between childhood and adulthood—all the while maintaining an ultra-cool attitude that doesn't pander.

Given that usability does not equal UX, how does The Scenario measure up? We'll apply a few of the NN Group's design guidelines:
  • To attract attention, consider applying a few graphical techniques commonly associated with advertising. While the NN report affirms that teens appreciate "visually stylish" sites and are otherwise quick to wander, The Scenario's brushed metal visual design is remarkably prosaic and oh-so-90s. I was really surprised.

  • Use standard-looking GUI components.Ouch! Take a look at the selection window at the left side. Its thumbwheel is not only non-standard, but is inoperative. Instead, you navigate the list itself with rollovers. Weird.

  • Accommodate a low-tech audience. Design multimedia for your audience's connection speed. The NN Group found that teens are often relegated to school computers (which often share a narrow pipeline) or hand-me-down systems at home. Since it's based on streaming media, The Scenario is likely to be a letdown for many in its audience.

  • Don't make users install any additional plug-ins; provide non-multimedia content alternatives instead.Thirst Radio requires Windows Media Player—and using the Miles emoticons requires MSN Messenger. Teens are reluctant to install plugins due to technical concerns and, in many cases, are not permitted to do so. School computers (because of their locations) often lack speakers. In short, multimedia is The Scenario's game—and if you don't have it, you don't play.

  • Avoid overly distracting promotional elements. Use sound wisely and in reasonable amounts. Avoid repetitive audio loops. Hoo-boy. While The Scenario does permit users to quickly stop its background beats, there is no way to silence Mr. Thirst, who continually chimes in in his inimitable style. My Doberman barked at him.
On the other hand, The Scenario does some things well. Text is held to a useful minimum. Other than noted above, controls are intuitive. The Scenario promises to stay up-to-the-minute with the latest tunes (very important). There are smooth links to the MSN Music store.

Yet The Scenario is underwhelming. The visual design is sparse, the content merely adequate, the creativity thin. There's nothing compelling, captivating or unique here. Rather than "inviting" The Scenario into their world, I suspect teens will be quick to move along to other sites that show better understanding of their world.


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