The interactivity gap: Embrace the Web

As news organizations strive to produce ever more multimedia while expending increasingly less effort, the immersive interactive graphic has become somewhat of an endangered species, crowded out by waves of audio slide shows and video clips.

The reasons are pretty simple. It takes time and at least some programming talent to produce a truly interactive project. And most organizations are short on both these days.

On the other hand, virtually anyone can produce a respectable slide show when given quality photography and a copy of SoundSlides. And Final Cut Pro has proven to be an approachable tool that makes video content easy enough to produce and post. The result: bulk multimedia at a bargain price.

Now before we go any further, let’s be clear that slide shows, video and linear animated graphics are valid and important storytelling devices. For the right subject, they can be the perfect solution. This is not an attack on any storytelling form.

But the fact is, all of these formats can be handled by other media, and none of them take advantage of all the Internet has to offer. Audio slide shows and video content are much more effective on television. And frankly, with the exception of documentaries where video is unavailable, TV would seldom even bother with content made up only of audio and still slides. And linear informational graphics? Those are handled quite nicely on TV or in print.

But the interactive graphic — and the key word here is “interactive” — is something that is unique to the Web. It cannot be done in any of the above formats and takes full advantage of the Web’s strengths as a storytelling medium.

Defining interactivity

So let’s talk for a moment about interactivity and what that means to us as journalists.

If you search for definitions of interactivity, you’ll find a lot of descriptions along these lines: “A term from the world of multimedia that refers to the interaction between a user and a software package. Interactivity is most often experienced by reading menus, making selections and pushing buttons with a mouse.”

That certainly describes the interactive experience as we’re seeing it today. By this definition, interactivity is the act of clicking on something to see something else. Yawn!

But that same search also brings up some alternate definitions that talk about an actual interaction — a back and forth — between the user and the software (the graphic). Here’s a favorite: “Interactivity implies that the user of the software can exert some control over the software, and not just be a passive page-turner recipient.”

At its best, interactivity allows us to get the user involved in the story. It allows us to create an immersive experience that allows exploration and experimentation. Interactivity means that instead of just telling or showing how something works, we can let the user try it out for themselves.
This can be done in many forms, depending on the content, but the most common methods range from simple one-trick calculators to game-like experience simulators to complex databases that allow the user to mine the information as they please.

You can’t do these things in print. You can’t do them on the radio. And for now, you can’t do them on TV.

Interactivity is what makes the Web unique from all of these other experiences. Here we have a chance to tell stories in a way our competition cannot, and we’re all too often failing to take advantage of it.

The problem starts with the previously mentioned lack of time and the necessary skills, but the bigger issues tend to be misperception (“That’s too hard.”) and the tendency to stay with tried and true formats (“How about a nice slide show?”).

The learning curve

Sure, if you use examples such as the database applications being built by The New York Times as your model, it would be easy to argue that your organization is not ready to produce that kind of work.

But if you treat this opportunity as a chance to grow and learn, you’ll find that interactivity suddenly is not so overwhelming.
If you or someone in your organization is already creating animations in Flash, look for an opportunity to add a single interactive feature — a simple calculator or maybe a quiz — to an upcoming project.

Someone involved will have to learn a little bit of ActionScript (Flash’s programming language), but by starting small, you can keep things manageable. Just be sure you start simply enough to avoid getting overwhelmed and discouraged. Remember, you didn’t master Photoshop in a day, either.

When your first interactive project publishes, you’ll have a success to show off to the boss, and you’ll also have your first bit of scripting experience.
On your next project, see if you can incorporate the same technique again (you already know how to do it) and add just one thing you don’t know how to do. You’ll again have to do a little learning — but no more than last time — and this project will be a bit more interactive than the first.

Continue this process over and over and before you know it, techniques that once seemed out of reach will no longer be a big deal. And, with a series of smaller successes to point out, you’re much more likely to successfully pitch a longer, more complicated project.

Be the cockroach

It seems that slide shows (and increasingly video) have become the locator maps of the Internet. In my days as a graphics director, I saw a LOT of assignments for locator maps, even when they didn’t really help tell the story. They were a default assignment because they were easy to put together and didn’t require a lot of thought.

So we produced lots and lots of them, at the expense of larger, more interesting graphics. We could produce 10 locator maps in the same time it would take to build a centerpiece graphic, so surely that was a better deal, right? Quantity over quality!

Eventually, we made the argument that if we cut down the maps to stories where location was vital, we could put more time and thought into display graphics that would actually tell a story. This allowed us to actually brainstorm and discuss projects, and we were able to get out of old formats and try some new approaches.

The same process is now needed for the Internet, and the key is to give yourself a little more time and open up your discussion so alternate treatments can surface.

One of my first true interactive projects was derived from a full-page print graphic that showed all the things in your kitchen that attract roaches. The graphic showed a kitchen, and roach-attracting items were strewn about with pointer boxes explaining them.

The obvious approach was to put the same treatment online, except that we would make the user roll the mouse over each one to learn about it. But during our brainstorming, someone half jokingly said we should let the user become the roach and roam around the kitchen finding the key elements. And because the graphic included some text on how roaches avoid getting squashed, the project could end with a foot coming at you and you have to make the right decision to survive.

Get it wrong and you’re dead!

It was perhaps a bit silly, but it was an instant hit with our users, many of whom referred to it as a “game.” It wasn’t a game at all, but because we allowed them to enter the kitchen, instead of just looking at it, they had fun at the same time they were learning and related that to a game. And that’s OK, by the way.

So really open up your brainstorming sessions and try go get past the obvious first idea. Encourage “crazy” ideas because they can often spark an idea that will lead to a truly unique and interesting approach.

As you go through this process, you’ll find many projects that could be handled much more effectively with an interactive approach, and you’ll hopefully find a way to make those happen. And you’re also going to find many subjects that are just fine as a slide show, video or linear animated graphic, because all of these are useful storytelling devices. The key is to be sure you’re considering all of your options and using the best — not just the easiest — tool for the job.