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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.
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:
- For readers, the classification helps in predicting what to expect. If there is an "Instructive" on assembling an IKEA table, there is no confusion on what to expect.
- For developers, the classification removes the fuzziness during development. When a designer asks for a "Simulative", the intent is clear. The classification becomes part of the communication vocabulary.
- The classification aids design specialization and innovation. When the boundaries are clear, the focus shifts back to making the complex clear -- the real reason for creating Interactives.
The classification is based on the representation of the communicative intent. The categories are listed below:
Visual Explainers (root)
- Infographics (see "Notes on the Classification" below)
Each category in the classification is explained below.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
Notes on the Classification
- Although this classification applies to Interactives, we do acknowledge the huge role static Infographics (both print and Web-based) plays in visual explanations. Many popular news websites are pushing the limits with regards to Infographic design. To see what we mean, look at our analysis of how certain news websites have visually explained the spread of the SARS virus.
- The classification categories emerged naturally when analyzing scores of Interactives found on the Web.
- We found some real nice examples of Mixes--combination of two or more categories. Example, What is Print? ( Instructives+Simulatives).
- The listing order of the categories -- from Narratives to Simulatives -- represents a kind of reader participation continuum -- Narratives (passive participation) to Simulatives (active participation).
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.