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Interactive Visual Explainers-A Simple Classification

First published September 01, 2003

Maish Nichani (maish-at-elearningpost.com) & Venkat Rajamanickam (venkat-at-elearningpost.com)


Visual representations have been used since the dawn of human civilization to communicate - to reveal the hidden, illustrate the intricate, explain the complex and illuminate the obscure.

Constructing visual representation of information is not mere translation of what can be read to what can be seen. It entails filtering the information, establishing relationships, discerning patterns and representing them in a manner that enables a consumer of that information construct meaningful knowledge.

Edward Tufte in the introduction to his book Visual Explanations, writes that those who discover an explanation are often those who construct its representation. Indeed, the need for such visual explanations of information is no more urgent now than ever.

In recent years, information has increased manifold in quantity and become more complex in quality, while strategies for communicating them have remained largely unchanged. This is especially true for information found on the Web. With ever decreasing attention spans of our potential audience, educators, writers, politicians, preachers, companies, organizations, and entertainers are forced to reinvent their strategies to communicate their intent.

In this article, we explore one such strategy by a discipline that seems to have figured out how to deal with the challenge.

Interactive Journalism

There is a subtle movement taking shape in online journalism. It is movement that is borne out of the desperate need to engage and excite news consumers in the post-information age. Dissemination of information and news breaking has given way to interaction, participation and involvement of consumers in news making. It is called interactive journalism or visual journalism.

In July 2001, Pew Center released a report titled "New Attitudes, Tools and Techniques Change Journalism's Landscape". The report consulted top newspaper editors in the US who voiced the need to have more two-way connections with readers. They wanted newspapers to rise above the stigma of being merely a "disseminator of facts" and play a more active role. They wanted to be "news explainers" first.

The editors rank "news explainer" first among six specific roles that newspapers can play. "News breaker" comes in second; "investigative watchdog," third; "catalyst for community conversation" and "community steward" follow. The role of "disseminator of just the facts" finishes last.

The news explainer role became more evident after 9/11. Online news websites like MSNBC, Sun Sentinel, BBC, Newsweek, Washington Post, El Pais and El Mundo made the effort to visually explain the events from different angles. As it was a sincere and empathic effort, readers loved it, and the practice caught on; as an article on the topic put it -- The Eagle has Landed.

What are Interactives?

Interactives are one of the first experiments in interactive journalism. They are brief Web-based interactive visual explainers. They are designed to explain complex concepts or ideas. Of late, they are usually created in Macromedia Flash or Macromedia Director. Since the practice is new, different names are used to describe it -- "Flash Infographics", "Motion Graphics", and "Interaction Graphics" are some we've come across. We like "Interactives" because it embodies interaction--the building block of the Web--and thus does not bring across any preconceived notions from the print world.

To satisfy your immediate curiosity, take a look at an Interactive -- MSNBC's Baggage Screener.

Why the Need for a Classification?

As we studied several examples of Interactives, we began to see distinct types of visual treatment and interactive strategies emerge, which were used for presenting different types of information about events, processes, mechanisms, cause and effect or phenomena.

As these strategies are found again and again in portrayals of explanations, we felt it useful to distil a simple classification system based on these Interactives. We hope this classification system will help communicators decide on what strategy and treatment to choose when.

Here are few benefits of having this classification:

The Classification

The classification is based on the representation of the communicative intent. The categories are listed below:

Visual Explainers (root)

Each category in the classification is explained below.

A Simple Classification of Interactives
Category Objective Characteristics Examples-Interactives
Narratives The objective is to explain by giving the reader a vicarious experience of the intent through a story. Stories (fact, fiction, faction) told with a distinct point of view. These include anecdotes, personal stories, business stories, case studies, etc.

>> View Analysis

Instructives The objective is to explain by enabling the reader to sequentially step through the intent. Step-by-step instructions explaining how things work or how events occur.

>> View Analysis

Exploratives The objective is to give the reader an opportunity to explore and discover the intent. These usually allow readers to discover the intent themselves by active exploring and sensemaking.

>> View Analysis

Simulatives The objective is to enable the user to experience the intent (usually a real world phenomena.) These allow readers to experience the intent themselves.

>> View Analysis

Notes on the Classification



This article is an attempt to better understand interactive journalism and to explore its application in other fields. The simple classification provided a satisfying framework for research. The classification was created after analyzing scores of Interactives, from award websites -- Webbys, SXSW, Malofieg, etc. to online news websites -- MSNBC, Sun Sentinel, NY Times, BBC, etc. to meta-websites like Nixlog, Poynter, and Visual Journalism. But even then, we do acknowledge that there could be reasons to refine this classification, especially to cater to the requirements of different practices such as e-learning. So, if you feel the need to alter the classification, do voice your thoughts in the comments section.

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