ONA Winner Highlights 5 Ways to Create Interactives that Inform & Engage Readers


Originally published on poynter.org on 20 September 2012. This excerpt is republished with permission.


Around the same time this summer that North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriage, the Guardian published an interactive that showed just how differently each state defines gay rights.

The interactive displays information in ways that a traditional story never could — by using color wheels to show how gay rights vary from state to state and region to region. The wheels help organize what would otherwise seem like an overwhelming amount of information, and they offer readers a visual representation of just how divided America is over gay rights.

I talked by phone with Guardian Interactive Editor Gabriel Dance and Interactive Designer Feilding Cage about the project — which has since won a 2012 Online Journalism Award — and asked them to share advice about what goes into creating an effective interactive.

Tackle an ongoing news story

When deciding whether to turn a story into an interactive, the Guardian’s four-person interactive team considers whether the story’s subject matter has staying power. If it does, Dance said, then the interactive probably will too.

He noted that topics like gay rights, women’s rights, gun control and the death penalty work well for interactives because they regularly come up in the news.

“If I’m going to have a team member work on something for two or three weeks, we don’t want it to be only be for one day or one event,” Dance said. “We want to make it an evergreen, living reference so that as these topics come into the news again and again, the interactives will still be timely, contextual and relevant.” Whenever gay rights comes into the spotlight, The Guardian can resurface the interactive and help extend its shelf life.

One of the challenges of tackling an ongoing news story is that there’s often a lot of research involved. It helps, Cage said, to look for organizations that track the kind of information you’re looking for.

“Researching this project was an incredible challenge; each state has their own definitions and they often vary widely,” he said. “I did a significant amount of reporting on my own and discovered late in the process that several organizations keep track of variations of what we were looking for.”

Create something unpredictable

More often than not, state by state data is displayed on maps. Cage wanted to take an unpredictable approach, though, so that the interactive would stand out.

“I originally went into this project with the goal of telling the story of gay rights without using a map. There are many maps of gay rights on the Web, and they do a good job of looking at one aspect,” said Cage, who spent about three weeks working on the interactive. “I ended up going with the circle because I was able to convey the regional aspect of the story while addressing many types of rights at the same time.” (Here’s a detailed piece on how he actually created the circles.)

The main wheel in the interactive breaks down gay rights by certain topics. The bold colors represent the states with the most rights.

The Guardian interactives team places a strong emphasis on taking different approaches to tell stories visually. The goal, Dance said, is to design interactives in a way that not only informs, but generates interest and engagement.

“We strongly believe that one of the most effective ways to communicate information is to do it in a way that interests the reader,” Dance said. “This interactive could have been done in a table. Could that table have been more effective from a purely data standpoint? Maybe. But nobody wants to look at a table of data. We’re much more interested in what’s going to engage the audience.”


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