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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
From to Boo.gone
Ernst Malmsten
Boo founder Malmsten: "We were too visionary"
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Boo was beaten by technology and the fickle fingers of those who shop for clothes on the web.

From the day it launched technology was a problem for the online clothes retailer. Originally it was supposed to launch in May 1999 but technical hitches delayed the unveiling.

When finally went live last November its ambitious technology was there for all to see - if they could be bothered to wait for it to download.

The graphics-heavy site took a notoriously long time to load.

Bad Boo

The first version of the website made three big mistakes.

First, the site could not be seen by people who use Macintosh computers which are heavily used by graphics, design and media companies - surely one of the key markets for a hip online retailer like Boo.

Second, it used lots of graphics, pop-up windows and 3-D images that only those with a 56k modem could see it without waiting minutes for it to load. Getting the most out of the site required a high bandwidth internet connection.

But as Therese Torris, technology analyst from Forrester Research, points out, only 1% of home surfers in Europe and 2% in the US have such high-speed connections.

Third, the site was very difficult to navigate around. Shoppers could get lost and find no way back to their starting point.

"It was a real mish-mash when it went live," said Jim McNiven, chief executive officer of award winning web design company Kerb. "It didn't seem very obvious what you were supposed to do."

Although looked great, anyone visiting it in November 1999 was confronted with a formidable array of windows.

In one was Miss Boo, an animated helper who commented on the clothes people were buying. At the same time four other windows were open showing:

  • the range of clothes a buyer was choosing from
  • a detailed image of one item that could be spun around or magnified
  • a Boo bag holding what was being bought
  • a mannequin dressed in the clothes a shopper was buying

    To do all this Boo used a technology called Flash made by US software company Macromedia that lets web page designers add animations and graphics to sites.

    Unfortunately at the time Boo launched, few people had installed the software program, called a plug-in, that let them see the funky graphics. Now Flash software is much more widely used.

    Good design

    Mr McNiven said many companies stop workers downloading plug-ins because of potential security risks. He said it was much better to use technologies that need no extra software and that everyone can see.

    He says Kerb always ensures that at least the last two full versions of browsers can see all parts of webpages designed for clients.

    In a tacit admission that these animations can take a long time to load, many sites that use them give people the option to bypass the introductory animations and get into the site proper.

    It was a real mish-mash when it went live

    Jim McNiven, Kerb
    Boo redesigned its website in January to make it easier to navigate and added a version devoid of pop-up windows and graphics.

    The changes gagged Miss Boo and a paper catalogue was printed for those who want to buy offline.

    "Boo presumed that customers were as sexy in terms of technology as they were," said Graham Brown, managing director of technology consultancy Neaman-Bond. Instead he says they should have scaled back the technology to ensure as many people as possible could see the site.

    But the early bad experience scared off many online shoppers who did not go back to, preferring to do their buying on the high street or on websites that were easier to use.

    Online shoppers are notoriously fickle and surveys have shown they are easy to irritate and hard to impress. Irritated shoppers tend to decamp for websites offering better service.

    Mark Baillie, creative director at web designers Motion Pixels, said that dot.coms were realising that using lots of technology and a neat design was not enough. "What is important is not making it look good but making it fast and easy to use," he said.

    But some of the blame for Boo's demise can be put down to the fact that the e-commerce is in its infancy. Boo launched simultaneously in 18 countries and had to create an international infrastructure that could handle all the different currencies, consolidate orders and deliver clothes and shows across the world.

    Steve Caplow, business development director of RSW Software which helps web companies tune websites to load quickly, said: "No-one out there has five years experience of building e-commerce sites because we have not been doing it that long."

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