“It must be remembered,” warned Nicolo Machiavelli, the 16th century Florentine philosopher, “that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to management than the creation of a new system.”
As technologists wrapped routinely in both the wonder and trappings of childlike discovery, creating new systems is our customary feat. We are asked on a daily basis to wed the grotesquely difficult to fundamental business goals such as generating revenue and cutting costs.
We are required to penetrate the unknown with some level of predictability and consistency – the two most elusive variables in the technology equation. Such was our task in the creation of Pier’s new corporate website, www.PierInc.com.
In the month since the site’s launch, the response has had me thinking a lot about the transition to “talkies” during the 1930’s from the silent films of a previous generation.
The decade leading up to 1941 culminated in Orson Wells somewhat magical union of dialogue and cinematography in an entirely new and engaging way. Although Citizen Kane redefined the genre, nostalgia remains for the now-awkward silence of Lon Chaney Sr.-era film.
Why Flash? - The Technology Concept
While response to our site has come from everywhere on the emotional wheel of fortune, perhaps the most intriguing response we have seen so far has been one of sincere anger.
Those who seem angry about what we have done have at the core of their contention the notion that we have “misused Flash.” I suppose this response has been so appealing because it is the one we least expected.
Here we thought Fantasy’s RoadRunner site was as clear an example as we have of a watershed in the evolution of a web technology. Up to that point Flash struggled to clear up the adolescent acne resulting from misguided implementations.
Distracting skip intros, a papal reverence of the future, and absurd aesthetic execution meant that Flash needed an astringent more than it needed relegation to skyscrapers and leaderboards.
So, just as the discussion being framed for us within the community has been, “Why Flash?” part of Pier’s intention was to frame the discussion in precisely the opposite terms for our clients –
“Why not Flash?” If Flash could meet all of a website’s needs external to the page itself – SEO, traditional browser functionality, dynamic linking, content management, cross browser compatibility, high performance, accessibility, mobility, etc.
– and then add to that the potential for a far more engaging experience; then what would the reasons be to push the progression of content-centric interfaces back toward more traditional technologies?
Why Flash? - The Business Case
Herein was the hypothesis we set out to test in our choice of Flash as the interface for our new site. However, in addition to analyzing the limits of the medium technologically we also, of course, had business reasons to deploy Flash in the manner that we did.
Anyone tasked with making technology decisions for organizations either large or small is familiar with the field of play. The technology needs to add value to the organization in some measurable way.
For Pier, the value that PierInc.com needs to add to our organization coagulates around revenue generation. We generate more revenue when we attract more clients. We attract more clients when we a) demonstrate thought leadership in our field and b) engage people in the Pier story.
So Proposition A in our revenue generating formula, thought leadership, is achieved when we show that we understand what Aristotle might call the “formal cause” of the problem – or material issues surrounding the success of Flash deployed as a content platform.
We then position ourselves as the “efficient cause” of the solution to those problems – or the primary agent of change.
It was important to accomplishing our goal of thought leadership that we not only deal with the typical issues facing Flash usability, but that we also bring something unique to the Flash development table.
So we spent a good deal of time creating an innovative backend framework, as well as session tracking and analysis technology which I will discuss in further detail later.
Proposition B then becomes engaging people in the Pier story, and it’s in this task that Flash has proven to be the best possible solution for much of its existence.
The design concept for PierInc.com went something like this – we felt the blog was an immensely popular format for delivering content primarily because it is designed around the singular notion that what is most recent is most relevant.
This is a universal principle of the web ideally realized only recently in the blog construct. The second part of the concept focused around our individual experiences with the Wikipedia. We all had, at one point or many, found ourselves intending to spend only minutes reading something, and then a half hour later wondering where the time had gone.
People, we believed, will read more (even unintentionally) when presented with inline navigation, as opposed to a typical 10 link hierarchy.
So, it was off of this foundation that we proceeded to tell our story, and it was in Flash’s rich media capabilities that we really found our hook.
From audio and video deployment to a minimally animated interface, to simple graces like being able to use Franklin Gothic for typesetting; engaging user experiences cannot be topped in well executed Flash design.
I think this is understood by many, yet it is funny how engaging user experience is valued only in certain circumstances, isn’t it?
Along with being chased around like Frankenstein to a burning windmill, we have received many inquiries concerning the techniques and methodologies used to develop PierInc.com.
The answer to those inquiries is pretty simple. All we did was hit CONTROL-ALT-SHIFT-S in Photoshop. Seriously though, the project was, like anything, difficult to comprehend in its totality.
We knew something about what we wanted, and something about how to get to it, but there was a lot of experimentation and debate along the way.
It began with the content management infrastructure. We had, like everyone, built dozens of CMS tools in the past, however we wanted to formalize our offering while taking advantage of some of the new capabilities of Flex 2.
The CMS system sits atop Reach, a Flex-based web-top that we use to deploy all of our b2b, b2c, and content management applications. The CMS had to serve in our case as a BMS (Blog Management System), if you will, to handle our navigation concept.
Additionally, we wanted to make sure that we built a robust publishing mechanism for handling the new landscape of web content. The CMS had to truly separate content from the interface in order to meet multiple format requirements - XML, SWF, Flash Lite, HTML, FlashPaper, PDF, and both standard and iTunes RSS.
A single article (or video, podcast, etc.) created and edited in the Reach CMS needed to be distributable in virtually any web-based publication or syndication medium.
As a side note, we have some exciting plans for our Reach platform so stay tuned for more information on that in the future. We will be announcing some things on that front via our newsletter, so if you care about it, be sure to check it out.
Another bit of functionality that we have been asked a lot about is our inline linking mechanism. The problem we faced was finding links comprised of words or phrases in a dynamic HTML text field and then creating hover events on those links.
The butchered version of the story is that we built a program that could find the x,y, width and height values of any given word or phrase in a text field.
Once we knew how to find the links on the stage (accounting for things like bullets, images, etc.), passing along the proper link information and building the hovers was a cinch.
It was a fairly complex problem – one of those unforeseen atrocities that Machiavelli was warning us about – that we will be able to take a ton of advantage of moving forward.
Anything else? Oh right, ’84… 1984 is a cool app that we built to record and play back user sessions on our site. It was a pretty dicey situation as we needed to build a playback mechanism that could interact with actual components on the stage – e.g. dropdowns, checkboxes, dragable items, text fields, scrollbars, etc.
At the risk of sounding like a cheesy, self-important geek, I have to do a major cop-out on this one. We have something very cool in the works on this front that I can’t wait to tell you about, but I don’t want to jump the gun.
Suffice it to say, I am hoping that we will be using this technology to change some things for good here in the next couple of months. Again, the newsletter will be a key avenue to info on that front as well.
As I conclude, it is important that I point out that Pier clearly recognizes how many in this community have both directly and indirectly helped in developing the technology we now use.
Many of the things discussed in this article were not invented at Pier, they have just all been brought together in one place with our own twist. And some of the things that were invented at Pier were also helped along significantly by those in the community to whom we are grateful (thank you Mssrs Yard and Wright).
So what is next for Pier and for Flash as the power of Flex is fully realized? In the words of the mortal Keanu Reaves, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Wait, not those words. “Where we go from here…is up to you.”
It is as it has always been – we plunge deeper into the unknown with the benefit of some new experiences, both good and bad, and hopefully we find success in the creation of our new systems.
At Pier we are constantly held in awe by the ripe frontier for exploration that continues to define the internet. Designing beautiful interfaces that hide ever more complex functionality is the name of the game.
It’s the challenge that we love, and it’s this community that drives us to find our best ideas and to put forth our best efforts.
“Be excellent to each other.”
About the Author, Michael Colombo
Michael Colombo is a partner at Pier Inc. in Boston, MA where he manages the design, development and implementation of large-scale, web-based platforms. Michael has undergraduate degrees in History, English, and Pre-law and a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College.