UX Design Thinking for Transmedia

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” -Albert Camus

Before launching into the topic of this article, it’s necessary to lay out very clear definitions of what exactly UX and Transmedia are, as these terms get misused far too frequently.

UX is short for User Experience. Broadly speaking UX design is a process for designing positive interactions between people (users) and products (often software or websites) and/or other people. Taking a user-centric approach and drawing upon the disciplines of visual design, psychology, and human-computer interaction (HCI) research, UX aims to design not just the visuals and interface, but the entire user experience. While UX is most often applied to software and website design, UX designers are also designing physical experiences like in-store shopping experiences, airport lounges, classrooms for schools, museum and art exhibitions, etc.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.
Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Transmedia storytelling is an approach of developing characters and delivering narratives across multiple mediums using both analog and digital technologies. These can include but are not limited to books, electronic books, films, tv shows, computer games, webisodes, and social media narratives. The transmedia experience for the spectator is to experience and explore a single storyline and character or group of characters unfold across multiple mediums. A prime example is the 2013 transmedia project Defiance, a tv series on the Scify network and computer game. Character development and plot lines flow fluidly back and forth between the tv episodes and the computer game. One is not derived from the other, but rather the story line and characters are unfolding on both, meaning that the tv series and game are equal parts in the Defiance transmedia ecosystem.

This is the future of entertainment media, the result of the trend of convergence between media in the first decade of the 21st century, driven by many factors including decreasing costs of CGI graphics for films and tv, the explosion of smart phones as primary tools for media consumption, and the electronic gaming industry surpassing the film/tv industry in revenue and popularity. As I outlined in an earlier article, we have moved past the decade of convergence and are now in a decade focused on synergies, and this is particularly the case with transmedia and UX design.

Transmedia opens the door to new kinds of storytelling, and new possibilities for creative expression for authors and media makers. But unlike a book, movie or tv series, software-based narratives such as websites, apps and electronic games need not only compelling stories and characters but also compelling interfaces and user experiences. Transmedia makers need to know good UX design.

To begin let’s consider some of the fundamental elements of UX design and how they apply to Transmedia storytelling.

The first and most important is that UX design is an iterative rather than linear process. There are different ways to describe and illustrate the iterative process, but here is a simplified version. First designers do research and brainstorm during a learning stage of the process; second they build prototypes during a building stage of the process; and third they test usability and effectiveness during a measuring stage of the process. The process then repeats, as ineffective ideas are jettisoned and the project moves closer and closer to a “finished” state with more and more refined iterations.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.
The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

This iterative process and rapid prototyping model can also be effective with transmedia design, where story and character development is often collaborative, and the possibilities of how to develop narrative and character across different mediums requires input from writers and media makers with diverse ranges of expertise.

The often collaborative, cross-media writing for transmedia has parallels to information architecture in UX design. Writing and editing a story and developing characters, figuring out to best tell the narrative on which mediums, is similar to the process of organizing information and designing simple user interfaces. Again, this is an iterative process, and using a UX design approach to writing narratives in transmedia can lead to better, more effective storytelling by constantly taking a user-centric mindset. What elements of the story are best told via video, electronic game, social media, etc? Rather than thinking of this as screenwriting, it can be thought of as narrative design.

The production and testing phase of the UX design process is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring art direction and graphic design, software coding and database administration, and often user testing and metrics analysis, all the while maintaining a user-centric focus. Transmedia, too, would benefit from this approach. Film and tv production is already inherently interdisciplinary, which is why filmmaking is such an inherently collaborative art form. But add in the transmedia integration of games, apps and networked media and there are not just multiple disciplines working together but multiple industries, representing a conceptual merging of Hollywood with Silicon Valley. Transmedia projects would greatly benefit from the UX approach of user-centric design, and design-thinking as part of the creative process. Films tend to be produced, whereas software is designed. It’s time to merge these two sets of thinking, to approach film and tv production as well as software design from both filmmaker’s and designer’s perspectives. With a transmedia product, the moving picture part of the project isn’t separate from the other digital media parts. The Scify channel’s Defiance isn’t a tv show plus a game, it’s a transmedia ecosystem.

Transmedia is compelling because it immerses the audience in the story and characters. Rather than being limited to one tv episode per week, viewers can immerse themselves in their favorite stories and engage with its characters any time they like. Rather than being passive spectators, they are active, involved users of transmedia stories. The user-centric, iterative approach of UX design is tailor made for this new paradigm of entertainment media. To be successful, transmedia projects need great UX design.

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