Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Cinematic Experience

He sits in front of his computer, his fingers poised over his keyboard. He pauses for a moment to remember the address. Then he types the name into the browser. His expectations are mixed. A new website always gives him a sense of anticipation. A Nigerian website gives him both a sense of hope and a sense of dread. Hope that he will see something good, something professional, something useful. Dread, on the other hand, that like so many times his hopes will be dashed. Dread that the colours won’t quite work, the images will be rough, the text will be full of typos, the information will be outdated and the site won’t really give you anything.

He types www.genesisdeluxecinemas.com.

He remembers the first time he typed the name of a Nigerian movie theatre into his browser. Silverbird Cinemas had recently opened and he just absolutely assumed that they would have a website. They did. NuMetro Cinemas, on the other hand did not. He tried to find one on the internet and couldn’t. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that they didn’t have one. He assumed he just didn’t have the address right. He figured, that like most Nigerian sites, it just wasn’t optimised to show up too easily in Google. On a visit to NuMetro he asked one of their attendants for the right address and was completely shocked to find that they didn’t have one. Soon, they said. In this day and age? For a modern movie theatre? A South African franchise? Come on!

www.silverbirdcinemas.com. He hated it on sight. It had the information he needed. Movie lists. Show times. Short descriptions of the movies. But! So ugly. So badly designed. So amateurish. Garish. What’s with the snow flake crystals background? The fact that the background didn’t move when the page is scrolled is such a design no no. What’s with the horrid scrolling marquee? The badly cropped logo?

Genesis Deluxe Cinemas’ (GDC) website was a breath of fresh air. Its design was simple and elegant and made him want to rush over to Ahmadu Bello Way and find someone at Silverbird to grab, shake and scream at, with white flecks of spittle flying from his mouth while security dragged him away, “this is how it’s meant to be done!” The colours are well selected. Each movie is laid out in blocks that are easy on the eye. He suddenly realises that he could see all their information without clicking on anything, scrolling yes clicking no. On Silverbird’s site, to see a short description of the film. Click. To see the other movies showing. Hit back button. Click.

GDC’s site feels modern. Silverbird’s seems like it was done with FrontPage circa 1999. GDC’s site seems like a website that is part of a strategy, an integrated part of a product, an extension of a brand. Silverbird’s seems an afterthought, a grudging acknowledgment of the need for a website, but executed unwillingly with a minimum of consideration for the basics of good design.

He leans back, rubbing the stiffness out of his neck. He knows GDC’s site isn’t perfect. It has its rough edges, some things not quite perfectly executed. Other than the fact that they update the site with movie information, it is a completely static site. No interactivity. No links to reviews. Silverbird, at least had the opinion poll. Ok a silly little opinion poll that hadn’t changed in about a year. And they had reviews even if the reviews are for movies that  half a year old and had faded from the collective consciousness within days of airing, but at least they acknowledged that people want to do something on a website nowadays.

And yet every single design flaw, every failing of colour and pixel could be forgiven if the cardinal rule of an event-based website is not broken – never never EVER let your website get out of sync with your events.

Grimacing, he flashed back to Christmas 2008. It was a Friday. He had promised the boys a movie and after scanning and reviewing all the movies he finally, reluctantly decided on Madagascar 2. He checked Silverbird’s website for the show times and realised that if he left exactly then, at exactly that moment, they would just make it. Dumping Mum (cooking, what else), Dad and the Bafana leapt into the car and took off in a squeal of tires heading for Victoria Island.

With 15 minutes to spare, they pull up to a screeching halt in front of 133 Ahmadu Bello Way and can’t find a place to park. All of a sudden realising how useful Mum could have been right at that moment, they took the next TWENTY MINUTES looking for a place to park and finally put the car in a spot that would make the insurance company absolutely refuse to pay for any damage. They make a desperate sprint into the building and up to escalator and arrive, panting, at the ticket counter with Dad barely able to stand after hauling both boys up the last 10 steps – to find that the movie was no longer airing. “But, but, but your website…”, he spluttered disbelievingly. They were sorry, he was told, they don’t update their website till Friday afternoon even though by Friday morning the new week’s programming schedule had taken effect!

With a herculean effort, conscious that his 4 and 6 six year-old boys would wonder why he had had leapt over the counter to and started choking the attendant, he took his children by their hands and walked away trying to figure out where he can get nitro-glycerine and whether Christian Bale would do the honours.

The 900 words or so of literary excess above are not really about doing a review of GDC or Silverbird or their website practices, but to make a few important points:

  1. This is 2009, even the smallest business gets some cache from a website. A simple website may only be the equivalent of a business card for a business, but it is so simple to set one up and keep up to date, that NuMetro’s inability to put one up was bizarre to say the least.
  2. Again, I say this is 2009, a website for a business should be well-designed and look professional. It should be an extension of the brand you have or are trying to create. Doing so doesn’t require a lot of work or even a lot of expense. Conceptualisation aside, actual labour to create GDC’s site would require about 20% of the time it took to create Silverbird’s monstrosity.
  3. A modern website should have some interactivity depending on what your business is – a feedback form, quick polls, reviews, a forum, onsite chat, a notification system. None of that is hard to setup nowadays and is pretty much self-sustaining.
  4. Your static content should never appear dated. Other than the actual movie content, Silverbird’s content is extremely dated. Even their banner graphics show movies that have almost been forgotten. GDC avoid that, deliberately or incidentally, by not having anything on their site that could actually become dated.
  5. A website that provides a time dependent service should never let real events and the site get out of sync. Imagine if Aero Contractors cancelled a flight and left it showing on their site when you go looking for a booking. GDC are not entirely guiltless in that regard. A movie they had scheduled to premiere one Friday couldn’t premiere till at least the next day because the shipper didn’t get the movie in on time, but they did not update their site to reflect this. Now it was just one movie among their line-up, for (possibly) just one day, but people would have made decisions based on that information. You do not do that to your customers.

In summary, websites are not playthings anymore, something you just have to say you have one. Treat it as an important business asset, a serious communication tool, a mechanism to make an impact on whatever world you want to affect. There are millions of us Nigerians out there. More and more of us are getting online. A well-executed site could have those millions beating a path to your door.

On the other hand, maybe this post is an exercise in futility. How much of an impact is the quality or even the existence of a website having on businesses that don’t get direct income from their sites in Nigeria (such as the airlines and banks do)? What do you think? Drop me a line.