Ninety-nine percent of the news "interactives" I've
seen have nothing to do with storytelling. Most are simply reference
material with navigation that amounts to a collection of categories
or dots on a map. There are a million innovative ways to do these,
but the idea is the same as a factbox in a newspaper--to provide
context for the real story.
True interactive stories are rare. The most innovative ones I've
seen don't try to hard to be "innovative." There's a simplicity
in the presentation, a subtlety in the navigation; it flows smoothly
from beginning to end, engaging you occasionally, not constantly.
That's good storytelling, online or off.
And I'd like to think that's not just my opinion. There's a sociology
to this. I watch how people use my projects--even when they don't
know it. I use a mix of complex behavioral tracking and good old
fashioned feedback to measure my own success, per project and over
time. The evidence so far indicates that linear presentations, driven
by audio and motion, tend to hold our users' attention much longer
than presentations that don't have a central story line or require
a lot of navigation. That's not exactly innovative. That's television.
But much of the Web is about data. Your stocks. Your weather. Your
headlines. Everything, anytime, all non-linear. At its core, a story
is a more linear experience--at odds with the way people use computers.
Think about it. You sit upright just inches from your monitor, mouse
in hand, eager to click. Try watching TV that close to the screen,
remote in hand, finger on the button.
So the first thing I try to do is push people back from their screens,
make them forget the mouse is there at first. When I want them to
use it, I'll tell them why and show them where. Why take the focus
away from your content, even for a second? I try to engage users
in ways that will help them relate to the story--making the presentation
more active, and ultimately more memorable, than a passive TV experience.
The key is not to overdo it.
Interactive stories that incessantly nag the user to 'click to
continue' become cumbersome. That can disengage the audience. So
can poorly written audio scripts, voiced by an inexperienced narrator,
processor-taxing effects or "dynamic," though non-intuitive,
navigation. Sometimes all you're left with is a 500k killer app
that ends up killing the story.
I used to think old-school print reporters or ex-TV producers were
behind botched interactives. They didn't understand the potential
of this medium. Increasingly, I'm not so sure that's the case. Maybe
many of these presentations don't appreciate the potential of good
Ashley Wells is an interactive producer at MSNBC.com. He describes
his job as getting people to "play with their news." These
comments were prepared for the "Painting
the News" conference and workshop co-sponsored by NewsLab
and the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota,
February 15-16, 2002.