Static is the new interactive

“As more publishers seek to take advantage of AMP and its share of mobile traffic, simpler graphics will be employed for speed and ease of implementation. “

Creating succinct, engaging interactive graphics is a complex task on its own. Creating interactive graphics that work on mobile devices, with their ballooning variety of screen sizes and touch gestures, is a task that can make even the most dedicated developer break down and cry. (I maintained seven results apps for six markets during the 2014 election, AMA.) This task has gotten so complicated that a session at SRCCON 2015 developed a repo of resources for producing mobile-aware interactives. And, as an industry, our interactives are getting fancier (think VR or scroll-based line charts).

heather-billingsWe’ve already started to realize that not everything needs to be interactive. In 2016, we’ll see the rise of static graphics as news organizations seek to create good mobile experiences. This is already happening to some extent. ProPublica has used slideshows to create the feel of interactive visualizations. In their “Unrestrained” piece, they use a slideshow to step through how restraints are applied to residents of group homes. This is an effective treatment because the images are thoughtfully constructed to work in series.

But it’s not just good-hearted concern for reader experiences that will drive static graphic use. It’s also a play for Google’s good favor. Google has said that, beginning next February, it will start directing traffic to pages using its Accelerated Mobile Pages framework. AMP’s stated goal is a faster, open mobile experience, which it seeks to achieve partly by clamping down on the sorts of media and libraries that can be served. For instance, JavaScript libraries, responsible for powering the majority of interactive graphics, must be open-source for AMP to serve them. Only a few media types (images, videos, slideshows, and the like) are allowed, though the option to create custom elements exists. (More about what AMP might mean for interactive journalism can be found here.)

As more publishers seek to take advantage of AMP and its share of mobile traffic, simpler graphics will be employed for speed and ease of implementation.

Such an approach can actually be more effective than an interactive graphic. The New York Times has done several stories interspersing static snapshots of data throughout. This works especially well on devices, where a stray finger won’t accidentally engage a visualization while swiping down. In data- and script-heavy circumstances, serving static images instead of interactive graphics is also potentially less load on mobile data. And in this case, it also saves the reader from having to swipe back up several times just to reference the data.

The other benefit of this approach? Newsroom developers can focus more effort on in-depth, experimental technology — one of which just might become the basis for my 2017 prediction.

Heather Billings is a designer/developer at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab.