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Beyond Bells and Whistles A five-step primer on adding multimedia to your website

By Dan Briody

The Web has exploded into a spectacle of sites, sound and near-constant motion. But is all that flash and pizzazz right for your small-business website?

"It all depends on your goals," says Jonathan Snook, a Web developer and author of a popular blog on Web design. "You really have to strike the right balance between flash and practicality."

Indeed, a little multimedia on the Web can go a long way. But audio, video and animation, the three pillars of modern-day multimedia on the Web, can add cost and complexity to the humble small-business website. As such, they must be used judiciously, and always in service of the site's strategic purpose.

"You have to think of the basic design principles," says Kara Pernice, a usability consultant at the Nielsen Norman Group. "You have to serve up what the viewer wants."

With that in mind, I've worked up a five-step primer on how to add multimedia to your website (if at all):

Strike a balance. If you decide that visitors to your website could truly benefit from some form of multimedia experience, it's critical to deliver the simplest user experience necessary to communicate effectively. Do you want to humanize your sales or management teams? A short video might do the trick. Feel the need to demonstrate a process or idea? Animation can be very useful. But whatever it is, never let form trump function.

Give users control. Interactivity is the greatest thing about the Web. It's what separates the Web from television (for now, anyway). Don't take that away from your visitors. Never have a video or animation play automatically. Always tell a visitor how long a clip will run. And always include play, pause and rewind controls in any piece of
multimedia.

Provide context. People need to know what they're going to see even before they click on a piece of multimedia on a site. If they don't, they probably won't click on it. Or they'll get frustrated and distracted trying to figure it out. Support multimedia with the proper context, including headlines and captions.

Keep it short. That the Web is devastating attention spans is already well understood. Don't make your visitors feel even more ADHD than they already do: Limit videos about your business to no longer than three minutes.

Research vendors. Web design and development is just like any other IT-related service in that there's a spectrum of quality and cost. Customization takes experts, and it can cost you thousands. But there are ways to simply add YouTube video or other homespun content cheaply and easily. Shop around, ask for references, and do your vendor homework.

There's no doubt that the Web has come a long way in a short amount of time. I can remember not that long ago firing up my old Netscape browser, typing in a URL, and waiting five minutes for a page to load. When it did, half the images would be broken, and text would wrap around the page in the most unpredictable ways.

Today, however, Web pages can really kick some serious ASCII. Standards, innovation and improved broadband speeds have all contributed to this rapid evolution. These days it's not at all surprising to see audio, video and animation stream seamlessly from even the most ordinary websites -- but that doesn't mean your business site needs all these types of media to attract customers.

Multimedia makes the Web a more enjoyable, distracting place to be. Chances are there is something your business can and should communicate using multimedia tools. Just be sure anything you add is about the customer, and not the technology.

Dan Briody is the author of two books and is the former Executive Editor of CIO Insight Magazine, a leading publication for information technology managers. He is also a frequent contributor on technology topics for Wired, Inc. and Business Week magazines.

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