Web Design: Ensuring an immersive experience

The web has experienced some big changes over the past few years. There was a time when the only way to create an all-singing, all-dancing site was to use a proprietary platform like Flash. So when Flash died there was something of a void left behind. We consoled ourselves with the hope that one day native web technology would rise up to take its place...

Recently there have been a number of websites that have delivered on the promise that HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript could rival and surpass the Flash websites of old. However, whilst the execution of these websites is to be admired, how many of them deliver the ‘immersive’ experience they are striving for?

There are three important factors we look for in an immersive experience.

  1. A powerful story

We probably don’t need to spend too much time convincing you of the power of a good story. Who hasn’t been stuck in the world of a book or film or TV show for days after? You might need convincing, however, that the web can deliver such a powerful narrative. A common theme with ‘immersive’ websites is making smart use of the scrollbar. The most basic form of navigating the length of page can be subverted - turning it into a timeline of your content. You must structure your message and guide the user through your story in any number of meaningful and unexpected ways.

  1. User interaction

This is where many immersive websites fail. There can be some negative consequences to the ‘scroll-hijacking’ technique (as it is known) as described above, not least of which is frustration on the part of the user. These guys are used to controlling the websites they visit, they want to get where they are going, and they want to get there fast. Unless you’ve prepared them that there is a payoff that makes your imposition on their scrollbar worthwhile, then you’re going to lose them. The same goes for extensive non-skippable video, slow animated interfaces, and anything else that impedes their progress through a site.

You’ll also want to make sure that your interface is not completely impenetrable. Users are used to certain navigational patterns, and when you betray those patterns in favour of your own strange invention then they’ll have to do some learning. This could be a problem. Remember a user out there in the wild is never as generous to your creative ambitions as you imagine they will be. If you annoy or confuse them, they will leave.

  1. Be creative, not a copycat –

To end on a less pragmatic note, the real key to driving immersion is to be creative. Your world, your story, your message is unique and you need to be true to it when delivering your content. Don’t stray towards trends - do your own thing. If you carefully consider the balance between your own goals and your users’ emotions / hair-trigger intolerance, then you can deliver an engaging, immersive experience that your users will love and probably share with their friends.

The Good and the Bad

Here are a couple of examples to demonstrate my theories on creating immersive experiences. First, let’s look at Far Cry 4: What are you made of?”. It feels weird to be calling this a ‘bad’ example because the production values are so high, but the initial excitement that stirred me with the stunning visual and audio effects soon dissipated and left me confused and disappointed. It suffers from overly-long video content where I am merely a passenger (I’m not here for the TV experience) and some slightly abstract, obfuscated methods of interaction coupled with little understanding of the effects of my actions left me cold. A little concession towards my emotions as a user would elevate this experience to be ‘immersive’ and encourage me to interact.

At the other end of the spectrum, a big winner based on my criteria for analysing immersive websites is "PI’s Epic Journey: Creating the Unforgettable". It’s a journey behind-the-scenes of the film, demonstrating the production process and it’s engaging from beginning to end. Most of the interaction is driven by the scrollbar, meaning I can take it at my own pace, and even jumping back and forth through the content. It is so well executed that it feels like this is the only way to adequately tell the ‘making of’ story. Those extras on your DVD, that you sit back and watch, pale in comparison. The smart empowering navigation, beautiful visuals, and narrative stack up to a truly immersive experience.

To summarise, make sure that your ‘immersive’ website contains a powerful and engaging story, meaningful and clear interaction that won’t unduly irritate your users, and truly creative and unique design. It will make such a difference to your success rate.

Do you have any tips for creating an “immersive” web design? Let us know in the comments.

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