These last few weeks of 2013 are likely to see a bombardment of attractively designed stories intended to evoke an emotional response, tugging at our sentimental holiday hearts. Following Snow Fall’s lead, they will employ a combination of photography, video, and interactive elements that, taken together, provide a complete and compelling tale. Some will just be good character studies, while the best of them will hint at larger societal ills and imply their own predictions about the future. The very best will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.
Now that the novelty of Snow Fall has gratefully faded, we can move on to the task of understanding what makes these stories work (or not work) and how we can continue to evolve the medium. I have just one wish for the following year: Let’s not neglect the basics.
Lovingly designed and crafted stories are wonderful to experience, of course. But no story should depend upon the presence of videos and other interactive elements; stripped of all styles and embeds, a story should remain readable and compelling on its own.
Put another way: While our designs are more sophisticated, they are, as ever, progressive enhancements on top of a story that must be able to survive without them. Responsive web design is one component of that discipline, but it isn’t enough. We have to assume that most of our readers are just as likely to arrive via an older Android device on an Edge network as they are via the latest Macbook Air connected to Google Fiber. Page weight and loading time matter. (Want a better metric for attention-short mobile readers? To hell with reading time: Tell them how much money it will cost to download.)
Often the best option is to provide (or at least facilitate, via good markup that cooperates with the various read-later services) a version of a story that’s just the text. As it happens, that has some happy additional benefits, too: it’s more likely to be accessible to readers of different abilities, and it won’t exclude readers from parts of the world where bandwidth is either hard to get or expensive.
That is, in our enthusiasm for expanding what we can do on the web, let’s not forget what makes it better than other mediums: the potential to reach anyone, anywhere, regardless of their abilities or wealth. Our designs cannot be beautiful if they are not also universal — crafted to reach a maximum variety of people.
The next Snow Falls will reach even further than our desks and pockets: to our televisions and glasses and the dashboards on our self-driving cars, and to a growing population of people coming online for the very first time. And what they need, more than skillfully executed scrolling effects and image fades, is news about the world. Let’s not neglect them.