Some Observations on Web-Based Interactive Documentaries

In preparing for making an interactive documentary prototype, I have been exploring other interactive documentaries, specifically web-based ones. Web versions offer the most universal access and can require less programming than tablet or smart phone apps.

The following post gathers my observations in learning more about the best practices of these experiences.


A clear, concise story is essential for uniting all the elements within the interactive documentary (or any interactive experience, really). Who are the main characters? What are their roles? What are their relationships to each other? What are their goals? What challenges do they face? What happens along the way?

Depending on the nature of your experience, your mileage may vary with these questions. Either way, every element within your interactive documentary must align with the main story or key idea in some way.

Avoid adding materials just because something seems “neat” or “fun.” This is a common mistake among designers.


Users must be central to everything within an interactive experience. Nothing should be added without serious consideration of users’ roles within the experience.

Questions to consider include, what are the users going to do as part of the experience and why are they going to do it? Further, how might users go “off track” from designer-planned pathways, and what might the results be? Are users going to contribute their own materials, shape existing materials, or interact with provided materials? With all three of these questions, how?

Social Networking Sites

Audition carefully the role of social networking sites in your interactive documentary. The first, and perhaps most important, question is, what do they bring to users’ experiences? Second, will they create a barrier for users, an opportunity, or some combination thereof?

Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok offer ways for people to add materials, engage conversation, and follow up, depending on the timeliness of the story. One interactive documentary used a Facebook page to provide updates on the community, for example.

Another option is to use a special hashtag for people to join the conversation from whatever site they wish to use. A hashtag aggregator such as Tint can help with bringing materials together.


Clear navigation is essential. Clear navigation instructions also are essential. Both provide users with an unobstructed path for experiencing your interactive documentary. Without them, users might give up and quit.

The instructions need not be lumped at the beginning. Instead, they can be smaller steps woven throughout the experience. “Click for more” is a common one.

The instructions need not be written, either. Some experiences use animated graphics or directional symbols to guide users through the texts.


Writing in interactive experiences requires special consideration. Avoid making it the default way to present information. The fun of an interactive experience means information can be presented in multiple ways, such as stills, video, audio, and graphics. So what is the best way to present each chunk of information?

More generally, avoid making users scroll through dense paragraphs and thick writing. Adopt the best practices of online writing, which opts for brevity and concision in expression. Try this book for some great insights.

Also proofread. With less text, grammar and other errors stand out all that much more.


Once everything is set up and ready to go with your interactive documentary, wait on releasing it to the world.

Instead, test it first.

Testing it yourself is an option, but a better option is to find people who have no investment in you or your project and ask them to try it out. Find a range of ages and computer literacy levels. Find those who know nothing about your subject and some who do.

Sit them in front of computer and ask them to go through your experience as best they can. Watch them, if they are comfortable with it. Afterward, ask them to share their feedback, such as through a survey, a conversation, or even a focus group.

This feedback will help you find the broken and awkward elements and help you fix them, ultimately making your interactive documentary even better.


Overall, make sure that everything in your interactive documentary is as consistent as possible in design, function, and expression.

If one interview includes a short video and a short paragraph, then all interviews should include the same materials. If one segment includes a series of videos, use the same materials and presentation for each one, such as with visual styling, fonts, and color choices.

Exceptions are fine so long as overall elements remain consistent. One way to handle changes might be to explain why the differences. After all, production mishaps happen all the time. For example, if one interview is audio only, use a sentence or a title card to note why.

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