Screen shot from the start of Killing Kennedy

Killing Kennedy: reflections on interactive documentary

I’ve finally managed to experience National Geographic’s latest interactive offering ‘Killing Kennedy’ and I’m so glad I took the time to do it.

The documentary is brilliantly finished and presents a seamless experience which I enjoyed beginning to end. The dual narrative between Kennedy and Oswald was central to the piece and keeping up with both sides of the story worked for me, with a strong narrative thread running throughout. Also I came away from it having genuinely learned something. From not knowing much about the Kennedy assassination beyond the fact he was assassinated,  I retained a lot of the information – more than I expected – beyond the experience, thus demonstrating the engaging power of an interactive documentary. Lastly, it’s always encouraging to see large organisations embracing the interactive documentary format and National Geographic seem to be placing it firmly within their repertoire; I particularly enjoyed their exploration into the 80s and the chance to meet lions.

Screen shot from the start of Killing Kennedy

Screen shot from the start of Killing Kennedy

However, it raised a number of questions for me about interactive documentary as a whole, particularly ones using the ‘on trend’ parallax scroll style which i’m becoming increasingly accustomed to seeing.

Sound

The use of sound in the experience really hooked me in and helped the narrative progress. For me, having a dedicated score helped build tension and placed me more “in” the story, or if because every time I strayed from the experience, it drew me back in and reminded me to finish it.

I also enjoyed the hearing the “voice” of Lee reading out parts of the story. This not only helped me build a fuller picture of is character, but also gave me a break from reading. I found this interactive documentary quite text heavy, something that is hard to avoid when presenting such a complex narrative, but can leave the user feeling quite overwhelmed.

I felt that the experience could have used more of the first person storytelling, or more narrative audio full stop; it feels like the temptation with interactive documentaries can be thinking “oh well it’s interactive so the user won’t consume all the information, so lets put loads in there”. But with this documentary, I really wanted to. I didn’t know much about the history and found the socio-political links that were being presented fascinating, but I also felt overwhelmed.

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 16.33.14Looking to other interactive experiences that have been released recently, The Guardian’s NSA files for me anyway, combated this by interspersing the information with short pieces of video that were very easy to digest as you scrolled down the page.

Perhaps there’s also a danger with expecting too much from a new medium. If I watch a linear documentary I don’t expect to retain everything I watch down to the last fact. So why do I expect more from an interactive documentary? This is something I would like to explore further.. Does anyone else feel this way?

Length

This is a really interesting point for me: Killing Kennedy felt really long, but in reality it wasn’t. If I were to compare the experience to the linear docudrama that was also released, with a running time of just under 1 hour 30 mins, it was significantly shorter (I wish i’d actually timed it..). However this raises a common issue with web based interactive documentary, the short attention span associated with online content.

I really wanted to see the whole thing, but I also have 14 other tabs open and a Twitter account to update. The feeling I get when i’m watching interactive documentaries, even though i’m a user who is used to this type of experience, still doesn’t compare to when I sit down and watch a linear documentary. I’m engaged, but my attention span is struggling. I feel this experience is often replicated when I watch any interactive documentary that sits online; I access it on my laptop (I wonder if using a tablet would alter this..), am usually doing more than one thing online when I find it and because it’s just another tab, I don’t tend to close down anything else i’m doing.

Comparing this to something like Alma, which had the option of downloading it as an app, could then mean a more continuously engaged experience. Or for example, Bear 71 which tells the user how long the experience should take at the start – maybe when you know where you stand with engagement, you’re more prepared to give up your time fully to it.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this and, especially if you’re a producer, how you attempt to combat short attention spans on web native projects.

Interactivity vs Linear 

Screen shot from 'move to explore'

Screen shot from ‘move to explore’

This was definitely an interactive documentary; I accessed it online, I could click around to find out more information, I could navigate to different chapters, I could soak up as much or little information as I wished etc… However, I found it still relied on a very linear narrative and as soon as I clicked on the “wrong” thing, the information I received didn’t quite make sense. For example, when you explore areas in the ‘move to explore’ sections, there is an assumed user journey around the page which means the information is delivered to you in order. However, if you don’t take this route, the narrative suffers.

I think this is a struggle when designing interactive narratives and making assumptions about the user journey can be problematic and probably not the answer. At this point I wish I could offer a definitive resolution to this, but unfortunately don’t think there is a definitive one.

Obviously it depends on the content and as the much-used mantra goes, content is king – so allowing design to lead its dissemination can cause problems, especially in a complex, layered topic such as this. But I also think this is a part of the iterative process interactive documentary is going to have to go through; there is no defined ‘right way’ to do things, software advances are continuously changing the playing field and the user experience can differ massively from one person to another.

Scrolling and the user experience

Speaking of user experience; scrolling & parallax, how long is this trend here to stay? Visually I do like it, it’s simple yet affective and for this dual narrative it worked perfectly. However I think they work best and, are perhaps designed for, touch screens as opposed to track pads and i’m finding that increasingly frustrating. You scroll down too far by accident and the next bit of narrative is ruined, the music suddenly changes, you try to move around the screen and accidentally scroll up/down even more. It leaves me feeling like my Gran trying to use the internet for the first time.

I’m also increasingly finding myself rolling my eyes when I see another parallax, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful way of presenting work and Killing Kennedy  is no exception. However, I think there is a danger of over saturation, especially with the relatively recent growth of interactive experiences. I think it comes down to the same rule with every use of technology, make it meaningful. Some times it just feels like the easy way out.

To finish

As it says in the title of this post, these are reflections on the current state of interactive documentary, not just Killing Kennedy, it just raised a lot of these questions in my head. I think what’s important when creating these experiences is to remember this is still a fledgling industry in the midst of an iterative process. It’s equally important to remember this as a user as well.

As I was writing this article, I also came across this talk that Ingrid Kopp gave at the recent Power to the Pixel conference. She discusses a lot of these issues (probably far more articulately than me) and also gives some great examples of interactive documentaries that are doing things differently:

About the Author

Jess Linington

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Jess manages the i-Docs website as well as contributing articles and interviews. She also runs the associated social media channels, such as the i-Docs Twitter, Facebook page and Scoop.it. If you would like to speak to her about contributing something to i-docs.org or be interviewed about a project, get in touch at idocsinterative[at]gmail.com

Jess LiningtonKilling Kennedy: reflections on interactive documentary