Last year, I visited Alcatraz on a trip to San Francisco. When walking through “The Rock”, I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of sharing the same surroundings as notorious criminals like Al Capone. It came to life around me as I followed the Cellhouse Audio Tour, a self-guided journey narrated by 4 former officers and 4 former inmates. Here’s a clip:
The guard narration, interviews, sounds, and reenactments were incredible. I vividly remember the 1946 escape story dubbed the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’, tracing the route the prisoners had taken, touching the widened bars that gave entry into the gallery, and feeling the pock marks on the floor from the Marine grenades. It was a surreal experience, and I would go back again in a heartbeat.
After the Alcatraz tour, I realized how far behind digital experiences are in replicating the visit I had. For me, this hit incredibly close to home — over the last several years, my company has built and launched hundreds of virtual tours for brick and mortar venues like campuses, theatres, museums, and fitness centres. I’m proud of the work we do. It’s obviously unrealistic to expect a website can replicate an in-person tour, but I wondered, did the gap really have to be this wide?
I researched the underlying problems by visiting countless virtual tours from around the web, and interviewing both clients and end users. I encountered hurdles like slow and glitchy content loads, audio and video that blasted on page open, controls and icons that were tough to decipher. All tours began with a noble intention of crafting a smooth walk-through experience, however I frequently ended up disoriented, lost, and frustrated. And I wasn’t the only one.
For marketers at brick and mortar venues, the consequences are real — a lacklustre first impression, a deflated view of the brand, and being pushed to the bottom of the “must visit” list. With incredible computing in the palm of our hand, how did things get to this point? After thoughtful deliberating I narrowed it down to three major pain points:
Using field research and interview feedback, as well as hands-on insights from real projects, I’ll summarize these 3 areas in more detail, and the steps needed to fix them.
88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience.
Gomez Report, Why Web Performance Matters
The job of any tour is to serve up what is most important and relevant to each visitor, and point out other interesting or valuable content along the way. However, most virtual tours adopt a one-size fits all approach in assuming all visitors have the same needs and web proficiency. There are a few consequences to this. The first is that they present the entire list of content to those seeking something specific. The student interested in athletics wants to see the running track, the field, and the pool; the senior with a creative side is looking for gardens, a greenhouse, and an art studio. A responsive tour guide would bump those points of interest higher on the list and spend more time at those stops. The second consequence is that they overwhelm users with complex navigation, mystifying icons, and menus within menus to click through. It’s a steep learning curve, and most users aren’t willing to weather through it (why should they have to?). When the interface misses on offering simple, intuitive controls, these problems pervade the entire experience and frustrate users, forcing them to exit.
85% of adults think that a company’s mobile website should be as good or better than their desktop website.
From loading issues to broken virtual reality buttons, the glitches present in many virtual tours are not easy to look past. As soon as a tour project goes live, the code is challenged in unexpected ways as new devices, technologies, browsers, and user behaviours emerge over time. The biggest offender I noticed in this respect is the absence of responsive formats for smaller displays, in a time when users are spending over half of their nearly 6 screen hours per day on mobile (KPCB Internet Trends). In many cases, desktop interfaces were displayed on mobile, making touch targets and buttons way too small to be activated.
On the content side, for larger venues there is ongoing work to keep a virtual tour updated and relevant, such as adding new media and new locations as the venue expands or re-purposes spaces. Every time there is an improvement in the location, the tour should improve as well, right? The new dance studio at the gym, the new suite at the retirement center, a renovated dining area… often those new spaces get left out to avoid engaging an external vendor or adding to the IT team’s “when we get around to it” list. Without a streamlined workflow in place, updates fall by the wayside, and visitors miss out on new investments.
This is a big one. Today’s virtual tours feel like a hasty, uninspiring tour guide — they show us a list of places, but they don’t deliver any sort of memorable narrative or storyline about why. They fail to capture our imagination.
What does it take to make beautiful, interactive and easy to use experiences, that cater to the interests, preferences, and web proficiency of each visitor? We know it’s possible; Google has launched several incredible experiences like Inside Abbey Road Studios, Night Walk in Marseilles, and El Capitan, Yosemite. What you’ll discover after viewing these examples is that you are much more eager to visit these places in person. What can we learn from their approach?
“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Addressing UI challenges requires applying usability practices throughout the entire design process. For virtual tours, here are some important considerations:
“Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.”
Paul Arden, Creative Director, Saatchi & Saatchi
Delivering a great experience requires refining designs with real user insights. It’s about executing a thorough testing plan to ensure the kinks and bugs are uncovered and addressed. A basic testing plan looks like this:
There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.
Prezi offers a poignant infographic about how we interpret and consume content:
Visuals. Stories. Interactions. Could there be a more fitting way to narrow down the key ingredients to crafting engaging virtual tours? Since the visual piece is checked off with eye-catching media, and interactions are a deeper topic for another post, let’s focus on stories.
Amazing virtual tours weave together a collection of stories. Watch street artist Remy Uno paint a mural in a Marseilles back alley at 2am. See the microphone King George VI used to announce the declaration of war in 1939. Perch on the 350m high ledge that rests climber Alex Honnold for the night on El Capitan. These are the stories found inside best-in-class experiences. Of course, not every venue has such unique cultural details, but all will have interesting stories to share if you dig deep enough. The point is that telling the right stories and curating different paths for your users will generate better outcomes (and deeper exploration) than just showing them a laundry list of locations.
By crafting engaging and personalized story lines, you allow people to experience places vicariously through the accounts of others, and they feel genuine. They provide answers and enable visitors to imagine what their own experience could be like. They ditch an exhaustive checklist of places in favour of a curated, personalized experience. When done right, it results in greater engagement, interest, and intent to take action — they connect and convert visitors to the next step.
Here’s the playbook for acing this last step — 3 actions to check off:
I’ve come to realize that locations have emotional significance because they are tied to life experiences. The impact of my Alcatraz visit was that I tell everyone visiting San Francisco it’s a must see. This concept holds true for campuses, museums, wedding venues, and many more places. When built right, a virtual tour elicits an emotional response. It invites us in by exposing narratives and meaning that surrounds us, opens the doors and conveys stories and history present in the bricks and mortar. In the process, it connects with people, and brings a place to life.
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Grateful for your 👏 and 💬 as this is my debut on Medium! Shout out to my co-founder Jordan Teichmann for the contributions and edits 🙌