Why it’s worth exploring NASA

There’s no need to follow NASA to distant planets to share its discoveries in how to give website visitors a rewarding landing, says David Bowen.

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I’ve been following NASA’s visit to Mars on its website. It’s worth looking at, even for organisations that rarely leave the Earth’s atmosphere, for several reasons.
First, Nasa regards its website as a primary communication channel – it pours resources into it and tries out techniques that others can copy if they work. Among these – second reason – is the increasing use of multimedia; not just video but also animations. Third, it is interesting to see how NASA handles a developing situation, bringing a time element to a static medium. Here, I think it is least successful.
The look is quite distinct. Most striking is the black background – black is uniquely suitable for a space organisation, but is still a risky colour because it can look so gloomy; and in places it does. Where it works best is when spectacular images are superimposed on the gloom. The navigation is a little different, too, with menus sliding up and down, rather than simply appearing This would look like technology for its own sake on most sites, but it works with an organisation that lives for the sake of technology.
Although the site screams technology, it is notable that none is particularly advanced: Flash and QuickTime handle almost everything, so there is no need to download extra software.

Learning from the Mars site

The Phoenix section, which covers the Mars landing vehicle, is packed with basic-but-useful technology. Audio podcasts are simply digital recordings, but in the age of the iPod they make increasing sense: they will suit people who are short of time but like to listen in the gym or while driving. A good interviewee can bring a subject to life, while podcasts are much easier to produce than a video. All you need is a digital recorder and a little practice.
Then we have multimedia, where different techniques are combined. Some of the presentations are simple, using 3D-effect graphics with text explanations – for example, how Phoenix communicates with Earth via the orbiting spacecraft.
A little more complex is the multimedia presentation, Seven Minutes of Terror. Fact is busy borrowing from Hollywood fiction to heighten the excitement – I’m not sure it needs it, but the combination of animation, video and interviews really brings the descent of the lander and its deceleration from 12,500 mph to nothing to vibrant life. That we now know that it actually worked makes it all quite thrilling. If this doesn’t make you want to work for NASA, nothing will.

Simplicity and accessibility

But even here the technology is simple. Mixing well-rendered pictures with sound and video is hardly high tech. It is done with a thoroughness, almost a conservatism, that is further reflected in NASA’s assiduous pursuit of accessibility guidelines. The podcasts all have transcripts, while the videos have subtitles. The subtitles may temper the drama for those of us who do not need them, but if they make life easier for people who have difficulty seeing or hearing, or maybe cannot understand English well, they are surely worthwhile.
NASA is less successful at making us feel that there is forward movement – time passing – on the site. It does it literally, with a clock that counted down to the landing and now counts the time Phoenix has been on the planet. But that is a little forced. Before the landing the home page was flagging the Phoenix Landing blog, which asked us to check the blog regularly for updates. But there wasn’t much in the blog then, and it seems to have disappeared completely now.
Maybe the scientists who were supposed to keep it up to date had better things to do. It’s a shame, because some sort of text commentary could work really well, moving from frantic activity to more gentle progress, and a blog would be the obvious format.

First published 28 May, 2008
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