Listen to this article
Sometimes in this column I talk about only one website. I have never before written about one page of one website, but I will now. It is the home page of the engineering group Siemens, it may well set the pattern for the next generation of corporate sites, and it has precious little to do with “Web 2.0”.
Siemens.com came at the top of the FT Bowen Craggs index published in March because of its coherence, attention to detail and because it did not just say “Let’s do the same as others, only better”, but took each problem and tried to solve it from first principles. Siemens was happy to win – it had been short of good news – and demonstrated our judgment was on the mark by launching its new home page a few months later.
Whether you see what I see if you go to the page will depend on whether or not it has been refreshed. Siemens treats its home page as the front cover of a magazine, and changes it at intervals. There are set navigational elements, but the bulk of the page is given over to a topical cover story. It makes the site lively, dynamic and worth returning to. It is also a sign of a company whose executives regards the web as a critical communications tool worth investing serious money in. Not true of many organisations.
Most of the page is driven by Flash. Not long ago I would have poured abuse on any company that did this. Animating the home page when most people had a dial-up modem generated little except curses from the frustrated user, rarely added any value, and caused big accessibility problems.
There are two reason why I don’t abuse Siemens. First, the page is not reliant on Flash. After some initial hiccups, it now works if you don’t have it: a static version automatically appears. It may not function equally well on all browsers, but the basic principles of accessibility are I think followed - helped by the audio version of the ‘cover story’ (of which more below).
Second – and this is the reason why it could be the start of a new generation– it is moving towards “convergence”, a word that has gone out of fashion but means the coming together of web and television. To put it another way, Siemens is exploiting the fact that many visitors will be using a broadband connection. The page is not animated – as in the old days of dancing Flash letters and images – but by golly it animates if you want it to. Rather like the Daily Prophet newspaper in Harry Potter stories, it combines static and animated elements in an engaging and useful way; and it doesn’t even need magic to do it.
Both the fixed and dynamic areas of the page hold surprises. The fixed navigation element takes up the bottom quarter of the page, which is sensibly designed not to scroll on a standard screen. The corporate links are conventional and lead through to a “normal” company site. But the “Products, Solutions & Services” area to the left is something else. It starts with only four links, but click any of them and a Flash-powered box springs open. In this is a list of folders, and within these are links that trigger pages pulled from across the Siemens presence. Three of the four links provide alternative routes to the same content: Products & Solutions (by group), Industries, and Product Names from A to Z. A good approach this, because it means Siemens does not have to second guess how customers like to find their way to information.
Come to think of it is a little magic. What appear to be a simple, possibly simplistic, set signposts turns out to be a complex drilldown menu; all without making visitors leave the home page.
The upper three quarters of the page is the fun bit. This is where Siemens is showing off. When the page was launched it focused on climate change, with clouds rolling across the screen in an impressively three-dimensional way. At the moment (of course it may have changed by the time you look) we are presented with a pretty but apparently static panorama of Shanghai. Click anywhere and the panorama darkens, then comes to life. The aim is simple – to show off what Siemens is doing in the city – but the way it does it is remarkable. Click “Explore our references” (some of the English is a little eccentric), and you fly across the city and zoom in on a car plant, metro or other featured project. An introduction box appears, with a “Listen to the article” feature to boost accessibility, before you are taken via links to more conventional areas of the web estate. It’s a bit like Second Life, but so much easier to use.
I like Siemens’ approach for a number of reasons. First, it fits perfectly with the group’s image as a technological leader. Second, it it is designed to test the abilities of broadband. Third, it is different (and therefore differentiating). Fourth, it is ambitious but not over-ambitious. The vast majority of content on the site is held on standard web pages, and you are not reliant on fancy Flash to find them (though I suspect there are still glitches that need to be sorted). Fifth – and most refreshing – it is fun. Siemens has realised that company websites do not have to be boring, any more than a magazine has to be boring, and has done its best to bring its worthiest material to life.
It may not solve the group’s wider problems, but it should at least intrigue the best jobseekers, engage new and old customers, and show that the web still has huge potential for those prepared to push the digital boat out. All this without going near a blog or a social network.