Rachel Nabors is an interaction developer and award-winning cartoonist, deftly blending the art of traditional storytelling with digital media to “tell better stories through code.” She has written for Inspire, Ladies in Tech, 24ways.org, and UX Booth and speaks at frontend and UX conferences around the world. She enjoys a hot cup of oolong or a cold glass of cider.
Giving them the crank
Recently I was on a plane back from La Conf in Paris. It was a long, miserable flight, and for the most part I didn’t talk to the woman next to me until we were in our final descent into Montreal. I wish I’d talked with her sooner, though, as it turns out she’s in the movie-making business. I always love to hear what other storytellers are up to, and so I engaged her in conversation. When I told her about about the interactive stories I make, she responded without prompting that, “Interactive will never kill movies.
“Whenever people talk about ‘interactive media,’ they act like it’s going to kill cinema.” I had never thought about this, having not made such claims myself. I do think interactive stories are more successful than media that is consumed passively—and by “passively” I mean something you can enjoy without having to take a physical action, something that you can let happen to or around you and enjoy through thought. To me, that the games industry is larger than Hollywood and music put together is a testament to the human need to have a hand in our own experiences.
But I also think she has a point. Black and white didn’t disappear with technicolor. It just became a niche type of film. Flash didn’t disappear with HTML5 and iOS. Legacy systems and animations like My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic ensure that Adobe will keep making Flash for years, although perhaps for decreasing returns. When a “superior” life form evolves, it often doesn’t wipe out every iteration of what came before. Through competition, those other forms of life are limited to the islands and other sheltered niches where they can continue getting along.
I was looking at the impulse buys in our local market and noticed all these tiny, hand-cranked music boxes. I’d seen them at every tourist trap in Paris. Gently cranking one to the tune of “La Vie en Rose,” I wondered, “Why do people do this? It’s a song. Why not just sell a device that plays an MP3 when you squeeze it?” The only difference I could see was that the music box lets you play the music at your own speed, with your own hand. There’s something deeply gratifying about watching the cylinder turn and plink out the melody. It got me thinking about graphic novels.
We read graphic novels at our own pace. You can start on the couch, take it with you into the bathroom, and finish it in the tub. This is something digital technology has a problem with. Recently at WWDC, Apple championed improvements made to continuing an experience across devices—writing an email on your iPhone, then finishing it on your computer, for instance. This something digital interaction struggles with compared to the analog world. But it is catching up.
What’s great about playing a video game over watching an action movie is that instead of the director and writer unfolding the story in front of you and showing you only what they choose, a video game challenges you to unfold the story yourself and think on your feet (or on your couch, as it were). The human brain is designed to do this. It loves it. Even the “laziest” big box clerk comes to life when a copy of Dead Space or Guitar Hero is on their console. The whole gamification movement is planted in the idea that if life/work/your million dollar app idea were more like a game, people would engage with it deeper.
My fellow passenger argued that films do leave plenty of work for the human mind to do—things to digest in every scene, complicated plots meant to stimulate those frontal lobes. But isn’t that like saying because a song has lyrics, people should be as content to think about those at a concert as they would actually singing them at karaoke?
As I turned the little crank around in circles in my hand, I could only think about the interactive stories I’m working on. Are they truly better than if I just made a video of story and put it on Youtube? Would a handcranked video accomplish the same level of delight? Would the talks I give at conferences, the ones I work tirelessly to deliver perfectly every time, be better if I just filmed them once and played that for attendees? Or is there something about the here and now-ness of going through these steps ourselves, each time, every time, being able to slow the song to a stop, to take the graphic novel into the bath, that makes it more rewarding, more enjoyable, than sitting still and letting someone else do all the work?
I grew up on a rural farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. We had calves, chickens, geese, all kinds of animals. They had to have pens to forage and play in. And if you leave animals on one tract of land for too long, they trample the ground and turn it into a dirt lot. So we practiced pasture rotation: one part of the pasture would stay fenced off until it had recovered enough, until it was ready for grazing again.
Now, the odd thing was that these animals always wanted to get at the sweet, new grass and vegetation on the fallow side of the fence. They’d reach their necks through whenever they could, nibbling on the greens, leaving a strip of grass cropped so neatly you’d think we were trimming the fenceline with a pair of nail clippers.
When the time came to let them into the fresh field, we’d take down the dividing fence or open the pasture gate wide. But so often the animals didn’t understand that they were free to roam in this promised land they’d yearned for so long. They would act as though the fence or gate were still there, invisible, holding them back.
We’re all guilty of this. I’ve had clients come to me and say, “build this so it works on everything!” In response, I ask, “What browsers do your analytics say your users are visiting with?” If analytics have been gathering data properly, we can then see which pastures are open to us. But all too often we operate on defaults, mentally blocking out tools that could help us because we’ve gotten used to rejecting them out of hand for so long. “I can’t implement this because it doesn’t work in this browser well/at all. I’ll do what always works.” Sometimes we still implement polyfills long after the need for them is gone, like calves reaching under a fence to nibble grass while the gate hangs wide.
To get the geese and calves to go into the new pasture, I’d have to herd (and sometimes carry!) them into the fresh pasture several times until it “stuck.” How often I would try to herd a calf through an open gate only to have the poor thing dig in her heels as though I were trying to force her against a wall!
Often we’re slow to discard our mental blocks. When we don’t push the envelope, we need to do less researching, less arguing for our cause during meetings. We have fewer promises to live up to. We can stay in the familiar, the pasture we know well, and look dolefully at the pasture we wish we had. “If only it weren’t for those barriers.”
We wait until we see many other companies implementing what we thought were “experimental and unreliable” over and over before we start imitating them. We wait to follow the leaders instead of being leaders. And there are often good reasons for that. There’s no point in building something no one can use yet. But if we don’t try to push the envelope, browsers won’t prioritize those features we yearn for.
We had a pair of white Chinese geese, the domesticated relatives of the Chinese Swan Goose. (The Swan Goose, it should be mentioned, is imperiled by the intermingling of domestic and wild genes.) They were tall and elegant, shrill, and they knew that Geese Were Not Humans. The other geese were somewhat dubious of this belief, but followed them around as the de facto leaders because they were also the smartest geese. Or at least the most motivated! Aidan and Aida could find a way out of any pasture we put the flock into. My mother and I would run around, plugging gaps in the fence a goose could only squeeze through if it thought like a cat. But the miniature velociraptors would show up a few hours later, parading the entire band of geese down the road in triumph. Eventually we managed to plug all their escape hatches, but the pair still caused us so much grief that we sold them. The flock was much more friendly and content without their promises of goose Valhalla just outside the grasp of Man.
There are people, and I fall in with this lot, who just cannot stop shooting for the moon. They want to do all the things now, and if one browser doesn’t support it, the bug tickets start flying. Do we get the flock in trouble? Yes. But if it weren’t for our misadventures, everyone would still be moping around in that boring old pen.
Browsers are capable of some amazing things these days, yet so many developers remain staunchly in their pens, either detained by their handlers or by their own blindness to the open gate. My advice? Be a wiggly goose, and sneak out when you get the chance. You and your flock will be glad you did.