The New York Times has published an epically beautiful long-form article worthy of closer examination. ‘Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek‘ by John Branch tells the story about a group of sixteen veteran skiers and snowboarders caught in an avalanche. The story told over six chapters masterfully employs an intuitive responsiveness through use of immersive animations and elegant transitions.
The article’s first page is a monochromatic full-bleed animation of snow drifting across a barren landscape with the headline title as an overlay followed by a single column of text in short paragraphs. Upon scrolling through the column, the text and white background overlap the snowy animation. I’m reading a blizzard metaphor into this, but that just may be my Chicago winter disposition. The display subtly responds to the reader’s position in the text. For example, the overall navigation at the top of the first page is only revealed when the text scrolls enough to obscure the article’s title. Since the navigation options are not initially available, the design nudges the reader to dive into the narrative linearly before jumping around to other chapters. In the ‘Descent Begins’ chapter, the background is illustrated with a map of the mountain. Following the narrative, the map generates annotations responsively showing the relevant routes.
The sidebar of the ‘To the Peak’ chapter has a small avatar of a skier that only animates when the reader scrolls past the text deemed pertinent to the illustration. This animation doesn’t have the usual look or controls of video and can only be re-played if the reader scrolls again past that text. The interface succeeds at being intelligent and intuitive in a way that truly integrates the multimedia by removing explicit user interaction with the multimedia elements. The familiar video player controls: play, pause, etc. suddenly feel like barriers between optimal text and multimedia integration. This interface sacrifices some reader choice in an effort to guide the experience.
The article also includes more traditional layouts and media such as inline images, videos with player controls, slideshows, links and maps. This makes for an interesting hybrid of ‘supporting’ media elements along with the ‘immersive multimedia’. The immersive media, along with the purposeful use of transitions, supports the storytelling by being interwoven and reacting to the reader’s action and position. The design relies more on being intuitive in response to the actions of the reader, but in so doing is also designed to shape the actions and experience of the reader.
Ideas immediately come to mind about how these techniques could be incorporated into museum digital publications to build more immersive experiences while drawing on our rich stories.
The “Snow Fall” article is also available as a Byliner Original eBook via Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
Postscript (January 4,2013):
In thinking more about my experience reading ‘Snow Fall,’ I revisited an article published in August by Golden Krishna entitled “The best interface is no interface” on the Journal of the cooper design firm. The post lists some principles for moving away from user interface controls and embracing natural processes. It feels like ‘Snow Fall’ was looking to achieve this in digital publishing. How can we take this even a step further by adding adaptive qualities to our publications?
And, as a final note for now, Fast Company released its predictions for the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in “Smart, Wearable, Invisible, Thin: 4 CES Tech Trends To Track In 2013“ . Though the ‘invisible’ trend focuses on utilities such as Siri and mainstreaming gesture technologies (like the Xbox Kinect), the conclusion reads: “Invisible is in, from speakers to screens to computer user interfaces that give new meaning to getting out of your way.” Surely we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in the wonderful innovation that ‘Snow Fall’ has provided. These larger tech trends will surely influence our digital publishing and reading experiences in the year to come.