NYT’s Snow Fall: A look into the Interface: aesthetics + experience
Gliding down the slopes, with nothing in sight except a white cover and a couple of stray trees here and there – the feeling of freedom, wind in hair, and the rush of energy, all of it makes it an unforgettable experience when skiing. But when this experience turns into a nightmare, there are things you will see and experience that you would never ever imagine. NYT’s Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a true story, brings all those things to you with its powerful writing and its visual experiences.
Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek became the pioneer in interactive storytelling. Ever since the story came out, it has also been one of the most talked about pieces, thanks probably to its beautiful marriage of text, visuals, videos.
Snow Fall has been a success not just because it was a first-of-its-kind successful interactive storytelling experience but also because of its successful implementation of various multimedia and design elements.
Experience: Despite the different elements – from writing to video, the experience created by the makers is so seamless that you don’t feel like you are taking a different path or leaving behind the main road to venture into a different medium. It is extremely well-integrated. Some of these multimedia elements are also optional, for example, you do not need to watch the videos or look through the photo galleries of each skier. The audience is given a prompt that there is a video or a photo gallery connected to this part of the story, but they can choose to not view it. Giving users options like these makes the experience more personal – the viewers can choose what and how much they want to explore.
Media elements used in the article: The article predominantly makes use of text, video and visualization techniques to map out the areas where the skiers were located and then lost. And although there is a lot of text, there is also ample usage of videos, audios, video animations and photos. One of the better parts of the articles is how it doesn’t have endless scrolling.
Navigation: The story is extremely long but is divided in parts like chapters. The readers can either directly jump to any of those episodes through the navigation bar on top of the article, or click on ‘next’ at the end of each page. This gives the readers a great ease in navigation and a choice. They can choose to go to any page. Such freedom for readers is essential, this can make the readers feel more involved with the reading process. Two other options apart from the episodes, on the navigation bar are – ‘Group’ and ‘Map’.
Clicking on these options open a window on the page with the information of the characters involved (for group) or the geographical view of the entire area (the map). The fact that clicking on these two options doesn’t take the readers away from the page to a different link is extremely essential to note. This gives the readers the chance to look at the map and the group any time during the story, without having to move away from the page.
Mobile v/s Desktop: Unfortunately, the beautiful scrolling effects do not apply when viewing this article on a mobile as compared to while viewing it on the desktop. This is probably a conscious choice as the mobile readers want to read while travelling and don’t want a lot of distraction on a small screen. Also, a lot of effects on a webpage while viewing on mobile phones can cause lags while loading the article. This will take away the readers. On the other hand, the viewing experience on Tablets is satisfying and with the increasing usage in tabs, this seems like a smart move.
The opening segment:
The story is introduced to us with the video animation of a snow-laden slope. The makers could have easily used a still image here but instead they chose to use a silent video animation. Using this, gives the piece more character. It makes the place and the story more real. The animation, sort of like a gif file, is some sort of a bridge between a still image and a video. This opening image thus helps in sort of setting the stage for what is to come ahead. It lets the readers and viewers experience being in a rather grave place and at the same time, it is not as personal as an entire video, so that they can maintain a distance with the piece.
The writing of this piece is extremely powerful. It binds all the elements of the story – the animations, videos, audios and the beautifully visualized graphs – in a such a manner that nowhere does the writing feel incomplete or crippled without all those elements. At the same time, those visuals and graphs help support the writing, making the piece complete and making this a completely unique kind of a reading experience.
The design elements:
The piece has done extensive use of parallax scrolling and the curtain effect. Parallax scrolling is a design technique in which the content on the foreground is moved at a different speed than the images or text in the background. This creates a sort of a sense of suspense and mystery while reading this piece. It also makes the piece attractive and although there is a lot of scrolling involved in the piece, it does not end up being boring. Also, considering how much time the audience actually spends reading on the web, this scrolling technique helps the readers get a glimpse of what lies ahead in a very unique way. The audience thus can skim through the article, but they can take in much more, than while scrolling through an article without parallax scrolling.
Another type of scrolling that has been used is sort of this side-by-side scrolling.
Here, the image, which maps out the area where the group splits up, is in the background and the text accompanying the description of what happens on that particular side of the slope, is on the left side. The moving image is marked, but the marks on the image, mapping the trajectory and timing of each skier’s path down the mountain, appear only when one scrolls the text on the left. As the story progresses, and as the skiers in the story move, their route is mapped on the moving image. This makes it very easy to visualize what exactly is happening with the characters and where everything is happening.
Snow Fall shows a lot of skill in its production. The makers have used different speeds for different video animations. The avalanche video animation has a well-paced speed whereas that of the airbag is quick. This makes the experience of those things more realistic. The Cascades’ visual also has a very steady pace, going above the different slopes, with the names of different points and bases appearing and disappearing as the video moves. This helps the audience of the piece get familiar with the overall geography of the area where the incident took place. The work on this piece doesn’t feel chunky and the audio-visual pieces in the story don’t feel repetitive at any point.
The appearance of the article overall is simple and neat. The white background with no jarring visuals, gives a sense of quiet and peace. It also creates the eeriness and loneliness of being trapped in an avalanche. The animated videos or moving images give the required break in the monotony of text. It also helps in giving a pause during moments where readers need to take a moment to take in the text.
Interspersed with videos, audios, and even bios of people in the story – in the form of slideshows, makes this entire interactive piece worth experiencing.
Author: Priyanka Ketkar ; Co-Author: Jennifer Heintz