Shaping Stories

Following up on last week’s post, this week I experimented with a newly developed web platform by the University of Minnesota for the creation of digital narratives. Immigrant Stories offers a clean and easy-to-use system for constructing personal stories via video. Given limited time constraints and other responsibilities, I used the site in a way not wholly representative of its stated goals, creating a short video for fun rather than something representative of my (or my family’s) personal story. But this effort still engaged with the site throughout the entirety of the intended process, giving me an idea of its functionality.

In general, the Immigrant Stories site is very impressive and easy to use. It seems particularly well calibrated to a userbase that’s less familiar or comfortable with technology. However, that ease of use also translates into a perceived lack of flexibility. The biggest issue I had was that the entire process feels extremely linear — or perhaps, even more than that, one-directional. While creation of the video is nicely streamlined into a 7-step process, there’s no capability to easily see that entire set of steps and move forward or back throughout the process.

This is an understandable approach in limiting the amount of confusion for a user, as well as preventing the options from feeling overwhelming, but it doesn’t feel well-suited for a lengthy project like a video of this nature. Since any return to the site places you back in the context of a single step, the framing of the process inaccurately represents this as a task that can be completed in one session, rather than an effort that may take twenty hours and multiple opportunities to finish. (Perhaps this is purposeful, as not to dissuade people who may hesitate to commit to a longer project…) Similarly, when returning to the story at a later time, the user can only jump back in at the exact step where they had left off, rather than an earlier part of the process. This feels like a lot of unnecessary limitations — or as a more concrete example, I had trouble finding a way to go back and edit the video’s script at the point of editing the video, which feels like a common need.

All that being said, the core functionality of the site functions tremendously well. The actual sequence feels intuitive and scripting the video as a first step really helps to frame it conceptually. The video editing system is one of the best that I’ve used, combining a high degree of flexibility and functionality with a comparatively user-friendly interface. (I think it might have been my smoothest video-editing experience to date, as compared to limited experiences with Adobe Premier, Windows Movie Maker, and Final Cut Pro)

From the technological side of considerations, this project is a tremendous success and feels positioned to offer a new level of access to users, particularly as supported by its additional video tutorials and assistance. I look forward to seeing what people can do with the system. My criticisms primarily come from a place of design, and I can see an argument for forcing that very rigid structure to prevent confusion for less technologically-savvy users. If that’s the rationale, could there be some kind of option or setting to allow users to self-select into a higher level of control over the process? Just allowing me to interact with my video in the full context of the construction process and not one narrowly chosen current state would address a lot of my concerns.

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2 thoughts on “Shaping Stories”

  1. I also was troubled by the inability to go back to different steps or pages in the process, so it’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one wishing that were easier. I’m also intrigued by your suggestion of offering varying levels of interaction with the site – i.e. having an option for more advanced users to follow a more in-depth path through the process. On the one hand, that could lead to more variety and creativity in the videos, which I think would be beneficial to the project as a whole. However, I can also see from the development side how that could really increase the complexity of the program and be difficult for them to incorporate at this point. It’s definitely something they should consider down the road though, if the program is successful as I hope it will be.

    Also, your video was great and full of fun facts! I’m a little disturbed by the 35 year difference in the life expectancy of working donkeys vs non-working donkeys though. Poor working donkeys!

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