Just say no to "virtual tours"

Imagine you are looking for a home online.
You see a listing in your target neighborhood that’s right in your price range.
Would you like a “Virtual Tour?”
Why, of course you would. It sounds good – a bit of futuristic, time-saving candy.
But reality isn’t so sweet.
Old habits die hard
What we in the real estate industry call a “virtual tour” is, more often than not, a stitched-together montage of blurriness upon which a blanket of Muzak has been lain.
1000WATT does lots of usability tests on real estate apps and websites. Users click on “virtual tour” links or buttons a lot because, of course, it sounds so promising.
But it gets ugly after the click: a new browser window opens; a Quicktime player takes over the phone; the fade-in, fade-out photo sequence begins.
And the music. Always with that music.
People bounce off these things like a rubber ball. They are almost always disappointed or annoyed. Why? Well, aside from the generally heinous production values, these virtual tours give the user very little control. Unlike an array of photos, it’s not easy for me to hop around in one of these tours to get to what I am really interested in. I need to guess where that kitchen part is, or, if I am heavily sedated, just sit through the entire “tour”.
While virtual tours of this kind may be an easy way for agents to impress sellers who don’t know any better, they are an imposition on viewers – the people to whom the house is being marketed.
Yet they persist. Agents wedge them into the MLS when they submit listings, and from there they end up on broker and portal sites. Some vendors peddle them as cheap and easy ways to “go the extra mile”. Others have positioned them as SEO chum to scatter across the Web.
Yes, there are newer, slicker offerings like Animoto, but they offer but cosmetic improvements on a tired format.
It’s time to move on.
Better ways
Consider Airbnb, a company that merchandises homes, apartments and rooms for rent. They absolutely kill at user experience design. If you’ve not spent time on their apps or Website, you should.
Do you see “virtual tours” on any of the listings? Of course not. What you do see are big, high-quality photos. Lots of them. You can view them in a slideshow, or click on a thumbnail to focus on what you want.
Why must real estate reinforce its reputation as a hokey professional backwater by littering its users’ experience with junk?
This horse is dead, but I’m gonna take another whack at it: focus on better photos, not gimmicks.
If you want to try something cutting-edge, take a look at what Matterport is doing. This company has taken the old notions of digital floorplans and fish-eye lens photography and mashed them up into a high-tech wonder. The company recently won Realogy’s FWD startup competition and inked a deal with Redfin.
My words can’t adequately describe what they do, so take a minute and check out this demo.
It’s whiz-bang cool, but also gives the viewer complete control.
It adds value to the experience where virtual tours derail them.
And no one wants that, right?