A 9-Step Process for
Interactive Project Development

by Adam J. Fleischer and Tim Levy

This nine-step process is a procedural guide for the planning, budgeting and production of corporate interactive communications projects, including CD- ROMs, kiosks, presentations and Web sites, whether for marketing, sales, training or education. It is a flexible tool, and few projects end up following the process in the same way.

These steps are not strictly linear, and frequently more than one step happens at the same time. They are presented here in first-to-last order.

For the purposes of this article, "the developer" can be an internal or an external group or some combination thereof. For example, frequently a company will engage an interactive development firm for the production of a project, while someone from the company acts as content specialist, writer or technical adviser.

Who is the company, who is the audience, what is the environment, what is the message?

Step 1 - Communication Goals
This first step is to get the development team thoroughly familiar with the company and its products and services, the intended audience, the marketplace, competitors and the messages to be communicated. This is accomplished through research on existing materials (print, on-line, video and interactive) and meetings with the development team and key company team members, including internal content and marketing specialists.

It is essential that key members of the development team (including the Creative Director, Writer, Art Director and Project Manager) get to know the character and personality of a company and its market, its direct competitors, and its targeted audience.

Specific resources for information include annual reports, brochures, Web sites, marketing and training videos and advertising. It is valuable to have the development team familiar with the work of a company's advertising agency and PR firm.

Now the communication goals and the audience of the project should be clearly defined on paper, along with the technical specifications of the target computer platform. Depending upon the project, the communication goals might be stated at this stage with a few sentences, or it could be supplemented with a fully developed written outline of the project's content.

What is the concept, style, look and attitude that will bring attention and memorability to the project?

Step 2 - Creative Development
Many internal education, training, presentation and even sales and marketing projects have very little creative development. This stage is skipped or ignored. Information is delivered in a plain, vanilla package. This is one of the great weaknesses in the overall state of corporate interactive communications today.

The better corporate projects follow the creative/concept-driven model that advertising agencies use in developing communications that get attention and persuade audiences. This is a brainstorming process, usually executed by a creative team, in which visual and verbal concepts are explored as possible ways to effectively frame the messages defined in step 1.

Usually rough ideas are presented to the company and feedback received; then one or two directions are chosen for further development. The concepts will be developed with rough headline copy, initial designs, and possibly rough storyboards, too.

A second and sometimes third round of creative development is presented to the client. The message and its creative development are refined and honed. Finally, the company must approve the project's creative direction before the next step can begin.

In today's world, where everyone is constantly bombarded with huge amounts of information, advertising and entertainment, communications must be interesting to get the attention of your audience. Don't skimp on this step.

What is the information to be included and how will it be structured? How will users access and navigate the information?

Step 3 - Information & Interface Design
This step usually starts with a traditional written outline of the content (which may have been completed in step 1). Based on a thorough understanding of who will be accessing the information, a flow chart is developed that shows the structure of how the different categories of information can be accessed.

Part of this step includes the interface design. What controls, buttons or hyperlinks are available to the user? How can they be made simple, obvious and unobtrusive? The goal is to make it intuitive and easy to use. We're still in the early days of interactive communications, and poor interface design abounds. If people get confused or frustrated when trying to use your program, they just stop, and your communication is lost.

Except for the simplest of projects, interface design is a complex task. There are always numerous ways to approach a project, and always trade-offs to make when choosing one approach over another. It is valuable to develop a working version of the interface design and start testing it, get feedback from users in the target audience, and modify the design based on the feedback. It is essential to have a final interface design before beginning production, because changes to the interface later in a project can be time-consuming and expensive.

Along with the interface design approval, this step concludes with the development of an initial version of the program's shell, addressing a myriad of technical issues.

What are the words in the program, whether delivered via text, voice or video?

Step 4 - Writing & Storyboarding
This step is the writing of the final script to be used in production. It includes all text that will appear on-screen, scripts for voice overs and scripts for video. Some of it may be creative communications, while some of it may be highly technical information.

The storyboard should show in rough form all of the screens of the program and where and how the text and script relate. Armed with a comprehensive script and storyboard, you are ready to move on to the next step.

What are the visual and audio elements of the program? How will existing materials be adapted and how will new content be created? What level of complexity and quality are necessary to meet the project's requirements?

Step 5 - Graphic Design & Content Creation
Initial art direction and graphic style is developed in step 2, Creative Development. Now that the script and storyboards are completed, graphic design and production for all of the media elements gets underway. Graphic designers create original art and graphics under the guidance of an experienced Art Director, who is responsible for making sure the graphic style is consistent and of high-quality. The graphic style needs to be firmly established before continuing with the content creation part of this step.

Content creation and acquisition varies tremendously based on the project. This stage can include searches for stock photography and music, photoshoots, videotaping, audio taping, music composition, sound effects development, illustration, 2-D and 3-D animations, etc. At this stage the development team is producing what will be the building blocks of the project.

Some companies have much of the content for a project already developed (existing photos, video, etc.), while at other times the development team is starting from scratch. The costs for this step of development can vary widely, as the range of cost from low to high quality is extreme.

High-quality content that can compete with images and sound we see every day on TV, radio, and in magazines is not cheap or easy to develop. Talented writers, designers, programmers & project managers are all essential.

This step concludes with all the content being edited and digitized into electronic files for use in the computer.

How will the interface, script and visual and audio content be combined into a cohesive program with reliable performance on the target computer platform(s)?

Step 6 - Programming and Integration
Here the real nuts and bolts of computer-based interactive multimedia happens. Programmers and designers incorporate all of the elements developed into the program.

Part of this step is good old-fashioned computer programming writing lines of code. The other part is integrating all of the media elements developed in the previous step into the program. Interactive technologies and computers are changing at a rapid pace. The tools are evolving and growing more powerful, but still are less than perfect. Things may take longer than initially expected, except for those truly weathered by experience, who know to tell you it will take longer in the first place. Trade-offs may be necessary in the areas of image quality, technical features and playback performance, all based on the target computer platform. These are the times when the late night pizza delivery guy starts to feel like part of the family.

Typically a project will include alpha and beta versions. The alpha version is the first cut of the project that is functional and contains much (but often not all) of the content. The project goes through a major review with the company, and user testing gets underway. Frequently, despite the best outlines, flowcharts and storyboards, the program works differently than originally imagined. It is possible to delete extraneous material or to rearrange some of the existing content sometimes these changes are easy; other times they can be very complex at this stage. The decision to add new material here can be costly and will probably extend schedules.

After final company feedback and a thorough evaluation of the alpha version, the desired changes are documented and then implemented into the program, resulting in the beta version of the project.

How do we take the program from good to great (or from great to exceptional)? What touches can be added for additional impact? How can the technology be tuned for optimum performance? And how can we integrate last-minute changes to the program?

Step 7 - Final Revisions
Part of this process is the final tweaking of performance and timing, to get everything developed to perform smoothly and cleanly. Polish is added. Finally the project has the powerful effect imagined and designed in the early steps. For hands-on multimedia developers, this is the most fun and challenging part.

Another part of the final revisions process is that companies in today's fast- paced environment push toward many "minor" changes as a project nears its completion. The project may have been started months ago and now product names have changed, new strategies have been introduced, acquisitions have been made. It is valuable to resist the temptation and make only the most essential changes and modifications at this stage.

After all performance issues and final changes and revisions have been addressed, a final beta version of the program is approved by the company and the developers continue on to the next step.

How can we assure the program will play consistently on the full variety of computer systems defined by the target platform?

Step 8 - Testing and Quality Assurance
Quality assurance is an essential ingredient for successful projects and is integral to the entire programming and integration process. Quality assurance and testing begin soon after initial programming begins and continue until the end of the project. The program is regularly and rigorously tested and examined to determine if its functionality and performance are consistent and of high quality. The earlier potential problem areas are discovered, the easier they can be solved, so it is important to start testing and keeping an eye on quality from the start.

When the beta version of the program is approved, a team of beta testers is given copies of the program to test. These people usually test on their own computers and have the task of exploring every aspect of the program and reporting any bugs and problems. Based on this feedback, technical modifications are made, and a beta2 version is delivered again into the hands of beta testers. Final technical issues are addressed, and a master copy is delivered to the company for final review and approval.

The master copy is approved and sent for duplication and/or distribution.

Was the project successful and how did the development process work?

Step 9 - Project Review
Key members of the development team and company team get together and review the project and the development process. Does the company feel the communication goals are met in the project? How did the development process go? What could be improved for future projects? How can the media assets created benefit the company in other areas?

This process helps organize and structure the challenging job of managing the development of interactive projects. As these new technological forms of communication continue to proliferate, tools such as this 9-step process can assist you in developing cost-effective projects that achieve important communication goals.

About the Authors
Adam Fleischer is President of E.ON Interactive Design, a Santa Cruz, California based interactive multimedia development firm specializing in corporate marketing, sales and training projects, including promotional CD-ROMs, Web sites, kiosks and presentations. E.ON serves clients such as 3Com, Octel Communications, Cisco Systems, Oracle and Applied Materials. Adam programmed his first computer game at 14 and has a decade of experience in computer-based publishing. He holds a degree in Classics from Columbia College and an MBA from Stanford University.

Tim Levy is the technology writer for E.Times and sometime Art and Video Director for E.On Interactive. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Tim made his leap into the Silicon Valley in 1997. Based in Santa Cruz he has written for several Australian and American online magazines.

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