Looking to online publishers for visual inspiration

Web managers are finding new ways to make content accessible and engaging, Scott Payton says.

At the beginning of last year, we wrote a column highlighting inventive examples of interactive ‘stories’ and ‘data visualisation’ by online newspapers and magazines. Many of these techniques could be adopted and adapted to make corporate websites more engaging and informative, we argued. Fourteen months on, a number of web managers are doing just this – while online publishers continue to provide a steady stream of new ideas for corporate communications people to borrow.

Here are some particularly interesting recent examples of interactive articles, animations and graphics from online publishers as well as corporate sites – plus a few that highlight the perils of providing ‘infographics’ that are not properly tailored to the web.

Goldman Sachs

The web team at this investment banking giant has clearly been watching developments in online journalism carefully – and adapting them to make their corporate site content more accessible and engaging.

Alongside the Goldman Sachs site’s plentiful ‘people-in-suits-talking-about-macroeconomics’ videos, there is a growing number of interactive graphics. The latest, promoted in the main panel of the home page last month, was an online report on the implications of the move of ‘millennials’ (people born between 1980 and 2000) into their ‘prime spending years’.

Users can scroll down a long page – an emerging convention for interactive articles and graphics-heavy reports – to view clear, intuitive, informative interactive charts; large-font facts and figures; and illustrative animations. Perhaps appropriately, text descriptions like this don’t do it justice: you’re better off having a look yourself via the link at the top of this article.

The point is that Goldman Sachs is using a range of visual elements, plus interactivity, to make a large amount of information more engaging and easier to digest than a standard, static online article or report. Moreover, the format of the ‘Millennials: coming of age’ report allows users to jump around and hone in on detail that is relevant to them – something that a (linear) online video does not readily allow for.

BBC Your Story

While an increasing number of corporate web managers, including those at Goldman Sachs, begin to adopt the interactive ‘storytelling’ and data visualisation techniques of online news outlets, the latter are continuing to push back the boundaries of such formats. Indeed, Britain’s public broadcaster has a website dedicated to such experimentation, BBC Taster, which is well worth a browse. One of the most intriguing trials to emerge from this online laboratory is Your Story, a ‘personalised story of your life, generated using your Facebook data in combination with BBC News archived content’.

Users can log in via their Facebook account (or opt to log in directly) to view a long-scrolling (there’s that emerging convention again) page of images, news footage and historical facts conjoined with their own life timeline – and tailored to their personal interests. ‘In the year you were born Concorde takes off’;  ‘By the time you were 20 years old, the rate of unemployment increased by 3%’; ‘just before you turned 38, Nelson Mandela died’; and so on.

Images are large, captions are clear, and navigation simple. It’s a clever, creative way of bringing an archive of historical material to life.

New York Times interactive features

This US newspaper unveiled a pioneering interactive story, ‘Snow Fall’, back in December 2012. The multimedia feature, created by Pulitzer prize winning sports journalist John Branch, helped to establish the long-scrolling, images-that-burst-into-life conventions adhered to by so many of its successors.

Since then, the paper’s web team has produced a steady stream of interactive articles, animations, charts and graphics on a wide range of topical issues. Notable recent examples stand out for their use of multiple media elements and interactivity to convey information more clearly and powerfully than images, text or standard video alone.

To start with a more sophisticated example, ‘The Dawn Wall, El Capitan’s Most Unwelcoming Route’ is an interactive tour of the first free-climb ascent of a particularly difficult face of a rock formation in Yosemite National Park (the climb was completed in January this year).

As users scroll through the page, they can move up a three-dimensional map of the climber’ route, and view accompanying photographs and captions documenting particular stages of the climb. The format gives a richer sense of the scale and nature of the endeavour than a traditional article. And, again, users are able to browse the information available in an order and at a pace of their own choosing – which they could not easily do with an online video.

Another recent interactive feature on the New York Times’ site is technically very different, but also successfully conveys information in a way not possible via traditional formats. ‘How the Air Campaign Against ISIS Grew’ allows users to click through a map to view the evolution of the US-led bombing campaign against Islamic State during the second half of 2014. Users can also hover over parts of the map to view airstrike figures by location (the data used to plot the bombing was gathered from US Central Command press releases). Again, simple navigation and clear visual presentation is effectively used to convey complex information.

The Wall Street Journal’s World Cup of Everything Else

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published a technically simple but popular and engaging interactive chart that allows users to see which country would ‘win’ in around 100 different ‘competitions’ – from hottest weather, via guns per capita, to biggest eater of vegetables. Simply click on one of the criteria to see a World Cup –style tournament chart with the name of, and details about, the winner. Like the best interactive features, it is intuitive and engaging as well as informative.

Not-enough-info-graphics

Although Goldman Sachs calls its ‘Millennials’ feature an ‘infographic’, it is really much more than that; it is a fully-fledged interactive report that, crucially, has been designed specifically for the web.

This is a trick that some companies are missing; they are instead putting infographics on their websites without tailoring them appropriately for online consumption. BG Group, for example, has a huge number of infographics on its corporate site. Most of these may work well as printed posters or magazine double-page spreads – but are awkward to digest on a standard desktop screen. Why? Because users must scroll up and down to see all information that each infographic contains – undermining one of the main purposes of the format: to present a lot of information in one go. The same is true for quarterly results infographics published online by PepsiCo.

Like other editorial formats, including video, photography and the written word, ‘data visualisation’ has a bright future on the web – but only if it is tailored carefully to the medium, rather than merely cut and pasted from the offline world. 

First published 15 April, 2015
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