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First a word on the “continuum” I keep hearing about for applications.  I’d like to apply it to my digital lifestyle.  You know that vision where you only have one place to keep your music, but can access it anywhere, etc., etc.  I still haven’t hit nirvana like that yet, but for movie watching it’s getting close.

I used to be a customer of Netflix when they first launched.  To be honest, at that time their pricing was singular and I just wasn’t watching enough movies at home to warrant the cost, so I ended my relationship.  Now I have kids, travel a bit, have an XBOX, etc.  For me, Netflix has become more relevant as a matter of convenience…oh and the fact they have a pricing model that totally fits in line with my use.  The thing that is great about Netflix for me now is that they “get it” with regard to how digital and old-school movie rentals can/should occur.  Why? Simple, it’s everywhere for my lifestyle now.  My Netflix account enables me to get DVDs the traditional way (even with Blu-Ray even though I don’t have a player, but nice to know the option is there) as well as digitally.  Recently they changed their Watch Instantly capabilities to use Silverlight.  But that wasn’t all.  With the launch of the XBOX next generation experience, Netflix now has an application for the XBOX.  So now I can get DVDs, watch on my computer(s) and watch on my home theater system.  All with one account, one place, etc.  The only missing piece is a supported/legal way to download to my portable media player (iPod, Zune, etc.).

The one thing that I really like about the instant watch capability is the fact that it remembers where you were.  So if I am traveling and start watching a video but couldn’t finish, when I get home to my XBOX, it starts where I left off.  Nice polish on that feature.  I can still start over if I want, but it is great to see that added value of watching where I left off.  For me, Netflix truly has figured out fast how I want to watch movies and innovates to offer the options for me.

I was showing my family these features and went to a PC in my house to show them the instant watch capabilities as an example.  It just so happened to be a machine that didn’t have Silverlight installed on it yet for some reason.  After logging in to my Netflix account and picking the first movie to demonstrate to them, I was greeted with this images:

It was a reminder of two things for me: 1) that I didn’t have Silverlight installed and 2) what paying attention to the install experience of your web application features can do to enhance the experience and loyalty of your customers.  You see in reality Netflix could have just left the default Silverlight install experience:

on a blank screen.  For me, I would have known what that meant and still been reminder.  But I’ve ranted about providing a great Silverlight deployment experience, about some easy ways of implementing it and how important it is not to assume and to optimize your rich client experiences for your users.  Netflix nails it and is the best example I’ve seen yet.  Period.  Let’s examine the key areas here (numbering mine):

Netflix focused on the main tenants of first impressions with new technology:

Maintain Visual Cues

Netflix keeps the user engaged, not by using the default Silverlight install image, but by maintaining a consistent user experience in the design.  Although the user has chosen to “watch instantly” and they are not there yet, this design helps keep a consistent brand recognition and even shows a player in the background a little bit.  This tells the user that they are still starting along the same action they desired.

Focus on the Content

Content is king.  Content is king.  Nobody will install anything if they don’t believe the content is relevant.  Look at how Netflix uses some personalization in this experience.  In section 1 you can see that they’ve alerted you about the content you chose…they haven’t forgotten about your desire.  They also put the DVD cover as a part of this experience to remind you of the content you wanted to watch.  This is HUGE to the experience.

Reduce Barriers to Entry

Some people might be apprehensive about installing new things.  In section 4 Netflix helps alleviate some concerns by showing the value of the action, and assurance that this is not something that has to do with advertising, etc.  They are providing you with additional information to help you make a decision and help you feel that the process is relative only to the task you requested (watch instantly).

Set Reasonable Expectations

In section 2, the authors of this experience help give some reasonable expectations to the user with “it only takes a minute” instructions.  This gives the user a reasonable expectation of time.  They have a reasonable assumption now that they aren’t downloading the entire movie, or something huge that will take 20 more minutes before they can watch their selected video.

Minimize Decisions

They haven’t given you any other offers here.  No option to create a new account, or sign up for other methods.  You’ve asked to watch instantly and that’s what they are presenting here…the option to do that.  They are making that decision clear in section 3 as well – this is the call to action…no other.

You may also notice the absence of giant Silverlight logos.  To me, this is a good thing.  It is important that you provide some context to your users about what they are installing if it isn’t directly from you though, whether it be from Microsoft, Adobe, wherever.  Here Netflix points out “Install Microsoft Silverlight” which puts in your mind the brand of Microsoft.  This way when the installer shows up it isn’t a surprise it isn’t from Netflix.  Perhaps adding the Silverlight brand/logo in a subtle way wouldn’t be a bad touch here to have some visual recognition and continuity from this screen to the installer.

Summary

Creating these experiences is an important step in managing first impressions.  It isn’t difficult to do either.  We provide some tools and support scripts (Silverlight.js) for you to understand the different scenarios.  Over time as more and more get Silverlight installed this will be less of an issue, but still shouldn’t be ignored.  I’ve seen many Flash sites that use the default “Get Adobe Flash” small icon and wish they would concentrate just as much on the experience as well.

I mentioned that the Silverlight.js file can help aid in detection/installation of Silverlight.  I’m curious your thoughts on it.  If you have a few minutes to spare, I’d love for you to take this very quick survey of your impressions of this technique and using the Silverlight.js script.  No personal information is required.

Bravo to the Netflix team…very well done.  Oh, and the experience isn’t that bad either ;-) -- Seriously though the player and bandwidth/quality detection is great.  Overall Netflix has won me back as a customer for sure!

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intersoft just sent me an email that the beta versions of their WebUIStudio.NET 2008 R1 is available, which includes a few new silverlight controls: WebAqua and WebCoverFlow.

i'm curious how soon the apple attorneys might prepare a cease-and-desist on the naming of both of these controls, but that's for them to figure our.  I'm more interested in getting my hands on them and playing around.  you can read their press release here on where to get them.  it's very exciting to see so many controls popping up.  i hope that when silverlight 2.0 releases that these will all be ready for primtetime as well!

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this time from telerik.  telerik has just announced their RAD Controls for Silverlight 1.1(2.0).  they have a site up with some demonstrations, etc. (obviously requiring 1.1 to render).  they have controls like:

    • upload
    • button
    • combobox
    • listbox
    • menus
    • progress bar
    • tab strip
    • textbox
    • treeview
    • slider
    • and some animation controls

a pretty comprehensive list.  very cool.  i've always been impressed with the partner ecosystem of microsoft 3rd party developers.  telerik is no substitute.  i knew that they'd be one that would be providing a great control story for silverlight.

take a look at their demo site and play around.

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36 teams.  1 winner.  join the phizzpop design challenge.  from the site:

"The PhizzPop Design Challenge pits top interactive, Web, and design agencies against one another to push the limits of technology and creativity in a battle royale."

if you want to join in the festivities, go register for a location at the phizzpop design challenge site.  the first of these challenges happened earlier this year in san francisco and looked like a great time.  the teams were presented with a challenge use case and given time to come up with a solution.  various implementations in various technologies emerged (ajax, windows presentation foundation, , etc.) and a winner was chosen by the design community judges.

design smackdown baby.

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well, you've seen the flurry of no doubt (at least if you are a regular subscriber to things silverlight).  i'm not here to say "go check it out" and add another post to the flurry, but instead to perhaps look at why is important.

you see, when i look at the site, i think it is cool, interesting, unique, <insert-favorite-word-here>.  but at the same time i'm a little opinionated about the ui design choice.  i should be clear that i'm no professional designer at all, and all of this is my opinion of course.  but i look at the home page of tafiti and i see a lot of things going on and elements that i'm not sure interact with each other.  there seems to be a theme of some type of desk/drawer.  maybe i'm just not a fan of woodgrain :-).  now because my mom is a librarian and i grew up singing family songs about the dewey decimal system (ah, good times), i can visually see that this drawer emulates a card catalog box (hence the single hole punch in the search box area), but are those elements matched with the other experiences?  i feel like i'm looking at a card catalog sitting in an ocean scene.

perhaps i'm being too picky (and i'm sure i am).  but one of the most unique features of tafiti is not being demonstrated in the user's face enough IMO and maybe should be a default view given this experimental project.  that's the tree view i'm speaking of.  what?!  you haven't seen it?  do a search and then in the top there is a link to "tree view" -- click it now.

and there in lies the importance to me of tafiti.  a different experience on search.  you see, the default search results are just that -- default.  they give me a header and some initial text sorted (apparently in relevant order).

SIDENOTE: when i do a search in tafiti that is powered by live search (i thought) the search results are different then when i go to live.com.  hmmm...

here's where i think rich internet applications (beyond rich media experiences) have a real opportunity to excel...different visualizations of data.  why is that important?  well, i'll take it from my perspective as not to assume i speak for the rest of the human race.  for me, tafiti is good and there are some demonstrations of the platform of silverlight, etc. -- but for me at the end, it still is search.  until you see the tree view.  here's a look:

you see the tree view "grows" a tree out of the results (i'm still trying to understand the sort order, but for this purposes this is irrelevant).  each branch becomes a result and sways in the wind in front of you.  one could argue (i'll be that one) that this might not be the best demonstration of this visualization (because you want to see relevant data in searches displayed more prominently), but the point is that it is a different twist on an existing problem domain.  i find myself going back and playing with the tree view for the silverlight aspects, but also to see if it does make some sense from a presentation sense for the results...either way it has kept me engaged on something that is old hat: search.   and to me, that's where rich internet applications can excel.

let's take another example using this same paradigm, family trees.  i'm huge into genealogy.  i've researched my family as far back as i can take it without digging out old documents in libraries that i don't have access too.  my tool of organization for this has historically been personal ancestry file (affectionately referred to as PAF).  for the most part, PAF is an excellent tool and gets the job done.  pedigree charts can be rendered just like any other pedigree chart in every other online/offline application.  then came mix07 and my friend scott stanfield and his team at vertigo.  what did they do?  they took a different look at an existing problem domain.  the result?  family.show.  you see, they didn't re-invent genealogy nor the pedigree concept, but the provide me a new visualization of the information...keeping me engaged and wanting more as a user.  take a look:

they are showing my family tree as real people, not flowchart lines.  oh, and they give me instant clues as to what i'm looking at: the star is me, the line connecting my wife, the fact that we have children, my sister and the fact she has children.  oh, and bill, my half brother -- they even provide a view on that challenge of representing multiple lineages that intersect.  (note: i don't have a half brother, but added that here to show a point.)  another cool feature vertigo added was the timeline snap.  curious what the family tree looked like years before?  move the timeline:

notice the grayed out areas -- they aren't gone, but filter out in the background showing what the pedigree looked like at any given time.  sweet.  family.show has provided a new experience on an existing problem domain.  and in doing so has made it a rich experience, an engaging one, and one that gets me excited again about the topic.

so what's my point?  who knows really :-) -- in a nutshell it is bravo vertigo and tafiti, for providing some unique differences on existing scenarios.  thanks for helping me understand that "rich internet application" doesn't have to always mean "new idea" all the time.