What tools and gizmos can do

Its interactive capabilities give the web a unique potential to help you do or learn about things – or attract visitors. Yet few businesses and public bodies really exploit the possibilities.

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The UK government recently launched a personal carbon calculator – see what your personal footprint is, and rejoice or be ashamed. The public was certainly impressed; so impressed that the site collapsed under the pressure of visits.
This set me thinking about the way that little bits of functionality can make websites so much more attractive. The ability of the web to do things other media just can’t tackle, particularly by using interactivity, is greatly underexploited by business and public sector sites.
I divide these devices into two categories: tools and gizmos. Tools are practical – they help you do things or save you time. Gizmos are closer to games but have some educational or other value; the carbon calculator is a good example.
There are areas where tools are widespread. The investor relations sections of many websites have share calculators that will tell you what your portfolio is worth now and how much you have made or lost since you invested. E-commerce sites often have address look-ups, which tap into a database to find the right address based on the postcode you have put in.

Sophistication in short supply

But more sophisticated tools are thin on the ground. This is odd seeing how useful – and relatively simple to implement – they are.
General Electric is unusual in that it has been using them for years, as is clear if you look at the venerable Parts Online system in GE Consumer and Industrial. Try ‘easy parts selection’ for fuses, select Fuse Application Assistant, tap in your voltage and current, and you are presented with the fuse you need. This has been around since the last millennium, I think, but is presumably still earning its keep. GE Energy shows that the group still believes in such tools, with a formidable battery of them found from the Tools tab. If you need to configure a heavy-duty gas turbine-generator, this is the place for you.
Tools such as this last one are protected from the general visitor by strict registration requirements, but some are easier to try out. These are intriguing because they can have a marketing as well as a practical role.
Take Otis, the lift/elevator/escalator company. Its web estate has a formidable number of country sites, many of which offer practical tools. After a simple registration on the UK site, I went to Architect’s Corner and gave details of the office building I was planning, with measurements, floors, numbers of people and so on. I was then presented with pricing for the escalators I needed (£504,000), drawings and specifications.
Were I a real architect I doubt I would go ahead on the basis of these sums – but I may well contact Otis to check the numbers, and perhaps buy some escalators from it. I know from talking to professionals that the electronic equivalent back-of-an-envelope calculations are seen as a terrific way to engage people. I wonder it doesn’t happen more.

Terrific traffic generators

I also wonder why we don’t have more gizmos – the fun version of tools – on business and public sector sites. There is plenty of evidence that they attract traffic (for example, the overload of the UK’s carbon calculator), which is reason in itself to provide them.
The UK government is certainly not the first site to let you work out your carbon footprint. Put the expression into Google and you will be offered a variety of calculators, mainly by companies happy to help you offset it.
BP’s offering (in the climate change area of its site) is clearly designed to attract visitors and to convince us of the company’s green credentials. It has a Flash and a non-Flash version, asks questions about where you live, your house, travel and energy-savings habits, and then tells you your footprint and its relation to the national average. Easy to use, and a good talking point.
I have found little similar on other corporate sites, but I can point to a couple of interesting government efforts.
The Personal Inflation Calculator on the UK’s National Statistics site is a little fiddly but clever. You say how much you spend on things such as food, travel, bills and mortgage payments, and it shows your own inflation rate over the past two years, both on a graph and in a table.
My favourite gizmo is a cousin of this, buried away in the monetary policy section of the Bank of Canada site. The inflation calculator lets you put in the cost of a basket of goods any year between 1914 and now, and tells you what it would cost in any subsequent year.
I have discovered that Canadian inflation in my lifetime has been 795 per cent, but that prices have gone up by only 24 per cent in the last decade. How many conversations run along the lines of ‘everything was 5/10/50 times cheaper back then’? It should kill them dead.
More important, for the Bank of Canada, it draws into its site a constituency of people who would never normally think to find themselves studying the monetary policy pages of their central bank.
First published on ft.com 22 June 2007

First published 27 June, 2007
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