this space intentionally left blank

November 9, 2011

Filed under: journalism»new_media


As the deadlines creep forward for the Joint Special Committee on Deficit Reduction, my team at CQ has put together a package of new and recent debt interactives covering the automatically-triggered budget cuts, the proposals on the table, the schedule set for committee action, and more.

The centerpiece of the package is a "reactive document" showing how the automatic cuts will go into effect if Congress does not pass cuts totalling $1.2 trillion by January 15. A series of sliders set the size of the hypothetical cuts, and the text and diagrams of the document adjust themselves to match. It's a neat idea, and one that's kind of a natural match for CQ: wordy, but still wonky.

Like a lot of people, I encountered the idea of reactive documents through Bret Victor's essay Explorable Explanations. Victor is an ex-Apple UI designer who wants to re-think the way people teach math, and reactive documents are one of the tools he wants to use. His explorations of learning design via reactive documents, such as Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction, are breathtaking. As he writes,

There's nothing new about scenario modeling. The authors of this proposition surely had an Excel spreadsheet which answered the same questions. But a spreadsheet is not an explanation. It is merely a dataset and model; it cannot be read. An explanation requires an author, to interpret the results of the model, and present them to the reader via language and graphics.

The reactive document integrates spreadsheet-like models into authored text. It can be read at multiple levels, depending on the reader's level of interest. The hurried reader can skim it. The casual reader can read it as-is. The curious reader can adjust the author's scenarios. The engaged reader can explore scenarios of his own devising.

Unlike a spreadsheet, the barrier to exploration here is extremely low -- simply click and drag. This invites casual readers to become engaged and start exploring. It transforms readers from passive to active.

Victor's idea is a clever one, and as someone who often describes interactives using the same "layered reading" mechanism, it appeals to my storytelling sense. I also like that it embraces the original purpose of the web--to present hypertext documents--without sacrificing the rich interactions that browser applications have developed. That said, I'm not entirely convinced that reactive documents like this are actually terribly useful or novel.

The main problem with this method of presenting interactive information is that it's actually really burdensome for the playful user. It's easy to read, but if you change anything, you have to basically either read and process the entire paragraph again, or you have to learn to pick out individual changes and their meaning from a jumble of words. Besides, sometimes words are not a very good description of an effect or process--imagine describing complex machinery only in paragraph form.

Victor also has some examples that avoid this flaw by making the reactive document incorporate diagrams and graphs alongside his formulas. These are great, but they also illustrate the fact that, once you make reactive "documents" more visual and take away the intertextual trickery, they're really just regular interactives. They're stunningly designed, and I'm always in favor of more multimedia, but there's nothing new about them.

This probably comes off as a little more adversarial to the concept of reactive documents than I actually am, most of which is just my rhetorical background leaking out. I think they're neat, and I would guess that Victor himself thinks of them less as a complete solution and more as a different shade in his teaching palette. In some places, they're helpful, in others not so much.

As an Excel enthusiast, though, I do take exception to Victor's description of spreadsheets as something that "cannot be read," with a high barrier to entry. People read and create spreadsheets all the time, although (to my frustration) they often use them as layout tools. But a spreadsheet that's already set up for someone and locked up to prevent mistakes is barely any more difficult to use than his draggable text--the only real difference is the need to type a number. Regular people may find spreadsheet formulas difficult to connect with cells, but those same people are unlikely to be creating Victor's reactive documents either.

Ultimately, I'm wary of claims that any tool is a silver bullet for education or explainer journalism. It's easy to be blinded by slick UX, and to forget that we're basically just re-inventing storytelling tools used by great teachers for centuries. That shouldn't eliminate interactive games and illustrations from our kit. But reading Victor's site, it's easy to give the technology credit for its thought-provoking qualities, when the credit really goes to his lucid, considered reasoning and clear writing (both of which mean that the technology is well-applied). Sadly, there's no script for that.

Future - Present - Past