4 Blunders of Website Interactivity — And How To Solve Them

This post is written by Science & Technology specialist Daniel Sieberg who will be an instructor for two upcoming mediabistro courses: Interactive Reporting Essentials and Journalism & Technology Bootcamp.

The acronym soup that is the lexicon of a 21st century journalist should now contain the likes of CMS, PHP, and UGC. If you scratched your head after reading those (or plugged them in Google) then now is the perfect opportunity to come up to speed.

But aside from the backend of programming, it’s perhaps more important to recognize what works for today’s online news audience and why. Deciding how to present content online and for mobile devices is critical to any business model but also for journalists to stay relevant as the media landscape shifts yet again. And yet too many journalists make mistakes that will turn off readers and lose their attention. This blog post is meant as a starting point to avoid those pitfalls.

1. Map out your maps

While maps on the surface seem like a fairly innocuous use of technology to aid the reader, they are not without controversy. Maps can contain inaccuracies, and relying too heavily on them without fact checking can cause serious issues for journalists or others. For example, in late 2010, tensions escalated between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over a disputed region between the two counties near the San Juan River. A Google map showed part of the land as being in Costa Rica, which enraged the Nicaraguan military and government who also laid claim. It was all over an incorrect border marker that appeared online. And there are plenty of other contests territories and locations in the world that could prove sensitive when mapping them out. After all, maps were the original way of laying claim to any location and continue to be politically charged. So take your maps seriously. Errors in accuracy will kill the impact they might have in any story. Do not think of them as token ways to illustrate a story that lacks graphics. Make them unique and inventive. For example, the New York Times obtained data that listed the popularity of certain Netflix rentals in various major cities. It even went further, breaking it down by various neighborhoods and zip codes. The result is a fascinating look at not only people’s entertainment choices based on region, but also how that could be connected to the cultural and demographic data, too.

2. Take time with timelines

Timelines can work well with crimes or wars or obituaries. But timelines can also be effective for showing the life of a product or how a particular model of car evolved or tell the story of a significant artifact. Keep in mind that timelines coded by hand are not all that easy. And certainly it helps to have a graphics and programming background. But there are tools out there to help make relatively straightforward ones and they’ll be outlined in the assignment. Do keep timelines in moderation—they won’t work for every story, and you want your readers to really appreciate when they work. Sometimes, they can make a story more complicated than it needs to be. For example, have a look at this timeline. Clearly someone took a lot of time to assemble information about the high-tech age with various categories. But what are we learning from it? Is it too much information and not enough organization? On the other hand, you might add a sliding bar to a timeline to let viewers adjust it or reveal certain parts of it when they run a mouse over a particular section. Consider this one from the L.A. Times about the death (and life) of Michael Jackson. The bottom line is make a story clearer not cluttered. Handy tools include Storify, TweetMeme and DataSift.