From being a key architect in the rise of the new media industry to working as a user experience expert and chair of the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA), Liz Citron reckons the interactive industry is on the road to recovery.
Liz has her roots firmly in the innovation side of interactive design, starting off as part of the original Wired UK magazine team – where she worked in design and production – and then she helped start up The Guardian Media Lab, which was The Guardian’s first foray into new media. Life, she says, was less complicated then.
“Back then, new-media design was very basic,” she says. “I taught myself HTML in a few days, and we did a lot of very experimental stuff, and to start with we were just seeing what we could do with the content we got from The Guardian.”
From there, Liz was instrumental in the creation of Shift Control, which she describes as a “fabulous” ezine, which was redesigned and recoded each week.
“It was a brilliant time: I was there for a year, and there were things that happened there that people are still not attempting to do on the Web,” she says. “It was a fantastic opportunity to see what technology could do.”
Yet during the time - around 1996 - the Internet and Web design was an uncharted frontier, filled with opportunity.
“Back then, everybody wanted a Web presence, but nobody knew quite what they wanted it to do,” she remembers. “Everybody back then thought the Internet was a Big Thing, and threw lots of money at it. But it soon turned to disillusion - people called it the World Wide Wait, and nobody could really understand the bigger picture. It wasn’t terribly interactive, either.”
“Sure, people were starting to use some dynamic delivery, but it was still early days, and it’s very hard to be creative when you’re still trying to figure out the technology,” she adds. “It was a lot of ice-breaking the technology, but it was also an interesting time as people were very collaborative, with agencies and designers all willing to help each other, because everyone was keen to see the end result.”
It also provided some valuable lessons for Liz - lessons that she would build upon both in setting up her own agency, and later as a consultant on the human user experience of interactive media solutions.
“There are a lot of Web sites around at the moment that people spend an awful lot of money on, but they’re still not investing in the understanding of human psychology, in the way that people interact with sites,” she says. The problem, then, is that many Web sites contain lots of information and access routes that the designers are aware of and know how to find, but when people visit the site for the first time, they find it hard to track it down.
“When you get really intimate with what you’re trying to achieve, you lose that freshness as a designer - you need people to come in and highlight the areas that are not working and that really frustrate people,” she explains. “It’s like if you own a car that only starts on the third go, well - you make do with that quirk. But, if you later try to sell the car to someone, they’ll be like: ‘I’m not putting up with that’. You just get used to the quirks, and you just don’t see them anymore.”
Liz cites technology ecommerce sites as big offenders of understanding how people browse.
“If you’re on a computer site, looking for a printer, for example, I’m fairly computer savvy yet I find it unfathomable to work out what kind of printer I’d want to buy,” she says. “Most people don’t invest in the kinds of solutions that help people purchase - you can’t just put all the information on a site and expect people to wade through it to buy something. If you compare this to supermarkets - they invest heavily in psychologists who tell them how to lay the supermarket out.”
For Liz, though, the growth of the industry is a gradual process, which she compares to word-processing packages.
“Back when word processing started, they were very strange – black screens with white text – and when you printed it out it was a pure fluke if it turned out how you’d wanted it,” she says.
“Yet the software has evolved and now it can do what you want it to do – and that’s the same with the new-media industry.
More fundamental problems are present as well, says Liz – with too many designers not
really understanding the basics of business, and how to manage design staff.
“A lot of people have second-hand ideas on how to run a creative business, and that’s why a lot of new media companies folded,” she explains. “It wasn’t helped by the state of the ecomony, but a poor business sense didn’t help. However, the message is starting to spread that if you really want to get on as an interactive company, you really need to know how to run a business as well, and you need to understand the world of business.”
Yet Liz thinks the future of new media in the UK is very bright: “It’s absolutely looking more optimistic,” she says. “Two years ago, BIMA members weren’t submitting for awards because the work they were getting from clients was very limited and they didn’t have anything to submit. The whole industry was tightening its belt.
This year, it’s been a different experience, in that we can get the executives together often as they’re all pitching furiously. It does feel as if things are looking better.” It’s this insight into the industry, and a real feeling that the collective of new-media designers matter, that saw Liz take up the mantle as chair of BIMA.
“I got into BIMA because I always felt very passionately about the industry, and that together we’re stronger,” she says. “I feel that when we work together, we can end some of the problems we face as an industry.
“For example, the way that some clients ask companies pitching for a job to create and complete the whole thing, and they’ll chose the best one. It’s bad practice. So, together we can say to clients: look, we’ll give you a good service, but we will not allow you to take advantage of us.”
For Liz, the realm of new media is as fascinating as back in the days of working for The Guardian Media Labs: “It’s an opportunity to get closer to those interesting sort of experiences, as a designer. It’s that trying to come up with the perfect thing - something that’s extremely functional and extremely aesthetic, and trying to translate that into interactive media.
“And I guess only a few have got that right, so far, such as Amazon. The whole thing about Amazon is that it works the same way as you’re thinking,” she says. “Like for example, I’ve purchased a book online at Amazon and, at the end of the purchase, the Web page says ‘people who liked this book also purchased...’
“And they’re right. The books are worth buying. So I purchase one, but then I realize I have to pay extra postage and packaging - but no, the site now asks if I want it sent with my first book order to save on postage. It’s then that you realize they have it absolutely right.”
It’s ideas that drive interactive design, and Liz is adamant that today’s designers can cut it, and that as the industry gathers pace, more innovative design is coming.