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Teaching Online Journalism

Jordan’s War timeline (critique 2)

Don’t be fooled by the dry title — Through the Lens of Military History is a cool package with photos, text, and one video clip that tells the story of how wars have been documented with photography.

This added feature in the Jordan’s War package (from The Roanoke Times, in Virginia) reminds me of one of those well-executed educational CD-ROMs from the mid-1990s. It has a nice texture and 3-D feel. It makes you want to reach in and touch things.

Timeline in Jordan's War

This segment is quite easy to use. A long filmstrip banner is unrolled across the top, and on it you’ll find 11 clear links. By “clear,” I mean you don’t have to do any guessing to know what they mean — the text of nine of the links is the name of a war, and the other two are “Intro” and “Early Photography.” So you can quickly grasp the meaning and function of the whole segment. It has 11 sections. Each one is about a different time. And if you don’t get the “lens” part right away (hey, look — there’s a camera on the table), you will figure it out soon.

The overall appearance, the consistent links that don’t move or hide, and the strong sectioning of the content — these are all good!

Lesson 1: Clear navigation means the users do not need to work hard to enjoy the content.

Now for the kvetching. The text is small. I’ve seen smaller, but this is tough for nearsighted people to read. Luckily, if you know how to right-click and get the Flash menu, you can zoom in manually (and because the producer used Flash text, it sizes up beautifully). But that’s such a hack! (It’s like forcing the user to use the browser’s Back button, in my opinion.)

If this were one of those 1990s CD-ROMs, when we rolled over the text, we would see a little magnifying icon. That would let us know we could click. When we clicked, we would get a nice large-print version of the text. Click again, and it would go back to small. This would not be too hard to do. A bit of extra work, yes. But worth it.

Lesson 2: If Flash text is not big enough, build in a function to let the user make it bigger.

There are four objects that persist — that is, they are present on every screen. (The title and navigation also stay put, thank goodness.) They are: (1) a sticky note with the word “Credits” written on it; (2) a camera lens; (3) a handful of rifle shells; and (4) the same scrap of paper (a link to the main package) that we saw in the photo gallery. I already discussed the way the credits and the back-link are handled in my earlier critique.

The difference between the handful of shells and the camera lens troubles me. The reason: If one thing (the camera lens) is a portal to another package segment, then why isn’t the other (the shells) also linked? I’m also bothered by the “mystery meat” nature of the camera lens link. When I roll over it, a dotted red circle appears. Sure, that makes me want to click it. But what will I get if I do? It’s a complete mystery!

Rifle shells

I think most users will roll over the rifle shells after they notice that the shells are always present. When that occurs, users can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed. “Oh, I thought the rifle shells meant something, because they didn’t go away. I was wrong.” It’s not a big deal, but it bears consideration.

Lesson 3: Persistent objects in the interface will be noticed by users. If one of these objects acts as a link, then users are likely to assume the others are also links. The opposite is also true. Consistency is preferred.

The Credits section of this package include the sources used for researching it. This is good — attributions and sources should always be provided within the package. I was quite disappointed, though, to find that there are no links! The sources are listed in non-selectable text and are not clickable, so if I want to explore the International Combat Camera Association, I have to type the name into Google. It would be so much nicer to click!

Lesson 4: Provide working links to additional information and sources used, as a courtesy to the users.

I really wanted to be able to go deeper into this timeline — but I realize it’s not reasonable to expect the online journalists who built this timeline to provide a complete reference on war photojournalism (much too time-consuming). In the old CD-ROM packages, the objects spread out so enticingly on the table could be moved or dragged or zoomed individually. That would require many more hours of work.

If one day a bunch of online journalists do get the urge to produce something like Terra Incognita’s Lewis and Clark Expedition, the tool used for all that awesome zooming and panning is Zoomify, with an entry-level price of $129.

This timeline package fits well with the larger Jordan’s War package because the young Marine who is the subject of the story is a cameraman. His job requires him to carry a camera as well as a rifle at all times. I applaud the online folks at The Roanoke Times for their enterprising spirit.

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