It was recently announced that my project, Guide to the U.S. Senate Floor Procedures, was one of the winners of Sunlight Labs’ Design for America contest. In the spirit of openness and transparency that this blog is founded on, I’ll tell you a little bit about how and why I did it.
Aside from the $5,000 prize, I created the project because I really wanted to challenge myself to produce a multimedia story on a highly complex topic. As journalists, we are often tasked with translating very technical subjects into stories the audience can understand. I picked what I thought was one of the more difficult categories, “Visualization of Congressional Rules/Floor Procedures,” and after reading through the source material I knew I had a very complex task ahead of me. The subject matter was so unreadable that I initially had second thoughts and didn’t want to do it, but I thought it would be great if someone like a junior Senator or even school child had a clear resource that explained how the Senate works.
I started by aggregating all the source material and text and editing out any necessary verbiage, any big words or convoluted phrases, and simplifying overly complicated ideas. In order for the reader to understand Senate procedures, I also had to understand them so I whittled down the text into a readable narrative and divided it into navigable sections.
I then decided to create a horizontally-scrolling website based on similarly styled websites I’d seen previously and enjoyed. These horizontal websites are sometimes criticized for bad user experience because they go against the way a visitor naturally scrolls, which is vertically. In this case, the negative was a positive… the unorthodox layout would force the reader to pay closer attention to the site rather than passively scroll. I also wanted to include visual stimuli that would keep their attention and encourage them to read the entire thing.
I approached the design as sort of a children’s book, partly after seeing the Alice for the iPad app. If a kid were reading this, would they understand what was going? If a child could understand it than a government newbie would find the project easy to follow as well. I sketched the entire project on strips of paper and brought the design to life in Photoshop.
To add the icing onto the proverbial cake, I created both a PDF version and a mobile version of the site, based on the text and original illustrations. The main site is visually interesting, per the contest requirements, but I also wanted something that was portable, printable, and easily shareable. These versions are also more SEO-friendly than the image-based main project.
The entire project took roughly about a week’s work, outside of my regular 9 to 5, and was both fun to create and a chance for me to hone my skills in a non-work environment. The best way to learn new skills, especially digital media skills, is to experiment often, to try new tools and means of storytelling. In the end, it is the reader/viewer is better served and informed.
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