Friday, June 17, 2011

Do Flashy Google Earth Tours have a Place?

Looking at the examples of GE tours out on the web I'm struck that they often use flashy attention grabbing effects but fail to communicate their content well, (an example discussed). However, watching this video made me pause and rethink

Intangible Value: In a very entertaining talk Rory advocates the importance of 'intangible value': its not anything real but its absolutely worth something. An example he doesn't discuss is the placebo effect, results show you can put a patient in an operating theatre, slice open their knee, wiggle some tools around inside achieving precisely nothing and the patient is likely to report a real reduction in knee pain after the un-operation. Amazing isn't it?

Chart Junk: I've always advocated the Edward Tufte approach to graphic communication, he regards anything that is not directly contributing to communication as 'Chart Junk' - anything that is there to make the tour look flash or just as decoration is getting in the way of the message and should be removed. Richard Mayer has empirical evidence showing that chart junk in educational animations (which are very similar to GE tours) has a negative effect on teaching efficiency which he calls the coherence principle.

Context is All: So is chart junk fluff that should be removed or does it add a professional feel and grab attention in a useful way? My view is that in formal education (taught classes in schools or Unis) producing intangible value should be low priority, any clever effects in GE tours fail to grab attention by the 2nd or 3rd lecture of a course. However, in an outreach context, particularly in a setting like a kiosk in a museum, a GE tour would be vying for attention against other exhibits so special effects represent intangible value that is worth having. These two contexts are extreme points on the end of a scale and there are all sorts of other contexts inbetween them for which decisions need to be made. The key question in making such design decisions is 'do I need to grab users attention?'.

Content First, Flash Presentation Second: Despite the context discussion above I would add that even in a context where flash presentation is important authors need to be careful that the message still gets through. Its no use grabbing someones attention if you fail to then do anything with the time they then give you. Juggling this need to both attract attention and also tell a good story is not easy but Hallway Testing is the solution.

My answer to the original question is 'Yes, but it depends on the context and where the answer is 'yes', be careful'.

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