3. ABOUT bianca

With background knowledge of the Web in mind, we now focus specifically on the bianca Web site. The bianca site is best thought of as a real house brought to life in virtual space. Described in the third person through the guise of bianca, the site is basically a 24 hour online house party. As the virtual host of the site, bianca guides users from room to room encouraging user participation at every turn. By making bianca a virtual persona within the site, users are made to feel as if they are welcomed guests in bianca's home. The site's overwhelming theme is that of community, contribution, and collaboration with overtones of a 'do-it-yourself' attitude.

In the spirit of the ideas presented in Brenda Laurel's book Computers as Theatre , the bianca site is more of an experience than simply just people interacting through a computer. When a user enters the site, they become completely immersed in the activities therein. As users move from room to room they are made to feel as if they are participants in a continuous house party, a continually evolving experience.

An important aspect of designing a human-computer experience is that of maintaining what Theodor Nelson calls a "virtuality" - an overall principle that unites a design in a representation of what it seems to be (Nelson, 1990). For bianca, the overall representative principle, virtuality, is that of a house. Every characteristic of the site is wrapped in the metaphor of the house. The functions that a user can perform within the site are limited to that which is possible in a real house. Every aspect of the site, down to the error messages when something goes wrong, fully supports the house metaphor, giving the user a whole engaging experience.

Another key component of a human-computer experience is that of direct engagement. "Direct engagement emphasizes emotional as well as cognitive values... Engagement is what happens when we are able to give ourselves over to a representational action, comfortably and unambiguously. It involves a kind of complicity. We agree to think and feel in terms of both the content and confessions of a mimetic context" (Laurel, 1991). The bianca site was designed from the ground up to be an experience and engage the user at every turn. With every page the user is comfortably made to feel as if they are inside a house and are wholeheartedly engaged in the representational activities of the site. The site is designed to encourage users to participate in the on-going activities of the site, weather it be chatting in the chat areas, leaving messages for other users on the message boards, or conversing with other users in the many discussion forums.

The design of the site is based on that of a real world house and is anchored around a clickable imagemap depicting the floor plan of the house as seen from above. Figure 1 shows the actual map as it appears on the site. Divided into rooms, each room is labeled on the map and users simply click on the room they would like to enter. Like most houses, the bianca site contains such staples as a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a pantry. Each room has its own description and personality, though maintaining a cohesive feel through bianca's third person presence.

"Welcome to bianca's sweet and spicy smelling kitchen. Inhale and smell the intoxicating aroma of bianca's home brew cooking! Sample some of her glorious ramen or try a smut inducing delicacy taken straight from bianca's CookBook. All of bianca's meals are cooked with only the freshest ingredients from her extensive Herb Garden and her exotic Mushroom Patch. And, you can be certain that bianca will not have fixed one on The 10 Foods You Should Never Eat.

As users click from room to room, the floor plan of the site is always visible and serves as a location indicator. Each room contains a miniaturized version of the main imagemap, called a navigation map. The navigation maps are about 1 inch square and do not have the names of the rooms labeled on the map. Besides the size difference and the missing room labels, the navigation maps maintain the room size proportions as defined on the main imagemap. Each room displays a custom version of the navigation map tailored specifically for that room with a small red dot positioned in the associated room. If the user is in the kitchen, the navigation map they see contains a red dot in the kitchen. The dot serves as a location indicator in relation to the rest of the site. The user can then use the provided navigation map to click to another room. Figure 2 shows the kitchen navigation map as it appears on the kitchen page.

When first entering the site, users are given three options with which to navigate the site. Besides the imagemap, users can take a slow stroll through the site by using bianca's guided tour, or they can choose to view any main document in the site by using the quick reference index. The guided tour navigation route is narrated by bianca in the third person and introduces the user to highlighted aspects of the site in a logical order. The quick reference index lists every room and every item in every room in the site.

The overall tone of the site is very open and encourages user feedback and interaction. The "home page" or front door of the site states: "bianca greets you with open arms, embracing all who would come to The Shack and contribute their wisdom, talents and love to bianca's growing community. Come on in! Write on bianca's walls, read from her books. Learn and contribute."

The user is made to feel as if they are a visitor or guest in bianca's home. As the user clicks from room to room they are encourage to participate in the activities occurring in each room. In a third person voice bianca describes every room and the activities that happen there in. Every room contains one or more structured discussion forums based on activities that might occur in ones own house. For instance, the bedroom contains the Dream Book. Users are encouraged to discuss their dreams by leaving posts in the dream book for others to read and comment on.

Besides the structured forums within the site, each room contains a chat area and a freeform message board. When a user enters a room they are notified of the estimated number of other users in the room and the last conversation heard in the room. Figure 2 is an example of how this is visually accomplished in the kitchen. Below the last heard conversation is an HTML link to join the other users in the room's chat area. In the chat areas users set their own topics and chat freely amongst themselves. As well as a chat area, each room is equipped with what is called a Sign-Up Board, or SUB. The Sign-Up Boards are slower paced message board areas. If a user has a message for another user who may not be on-line at the time, they can post a message in the appropriate room's Sign-Up Board. The usual purpose of these message boards is to notify another user that one would like to meet at a particular time to chat, thus the name Sign-Up Board.

By maintaining a continuous virtually of a house throughout all aspects of the site, and providing users with different types of communication styles, the bianca site has the ingredients of a true community. Users feel comfortable and familiar with the house metaphor and can interact with, or just simply watch, other users using a variety of communication means. Empowering users with the ability to communicate and a comfortable interface with which to communicate in is one key to bianca's success as a virtual community.

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