Information Fields in Transmedia Story Design

The designer of a transmedia narrative needs to design with an awareness of the entire information field that the user will be in so the narrative can cut through the informational clutter.

Every narrative unit and call-to-action must have a clearly identified message the design wants to communicate. That intended message should be explicitly identified before creation of content and interactions starts and should be checked upon completion to ensure that the intended message is cleanly communicated.

The transmedia narrative designer should identify as many potential sources of irrelevant information (i.e. people, ambient sounds, visual distractions, etc.) in the user’s information field and eliminate as many as possible. Those that can’t be eliminated should be minimized through effective design. Because of the diverse mix of content and media in a transmedia narrative, the designer must be careful not to create unintended messages through the juxtaposition of pieces of information.

Different users can perceive the same piece of information in ways that extract completely different meanings. Social, cultural, gender, age, and other factors can significantly impact what the perceived message is. The transmedia narrative designer needs to look at the content and structure of the narrative to identify anything that might be perceived differently and ensure that it is consistent the intended message.

Having users perceive different means in a narrative is not necessary bad. The movie Shrek is laden with double entendres that appeal to children one level and adults on another. Used effectively, the creation of multiple meanings through double entendres can make the narrative more interesting.

The concepts of perceptual time and information cascades have significant implications for interaction design. Designers of transmedia narratives need to be mindful of how much control they allow users to have over the pace at which information is presented. A vertical information cascade (i.e. a film) gives users no control over the pace at which information is presented. A horizontal information cascade (i.e. a book) gives users a high degree of control over the pace at which information is presented.

User control of the information cascade removes from the transmedia narrative designer the burden of trying to accommodate perceptual times that vary from person to person. Instead, individual users can determine how much time they need to deal with the cues in the information cascade. A combination of vertical (program-provided) and horizontal (user-provided) information cascades (Thwaites, 2000, p. 237) provides significant opportunities for a transmedia narrative designer to optimize the transmission and processing of the information stream.

Users of transmedia narratives may not always move to the linked information immediately, so the call-to-action needs to be designed to provide both immediate and long-term connections. Most web users have probably had the experience of seeing something interesting, moving on briefly, and then trying to back track to it, only to realize that they could not find it again. This experience is not unique to web-based media. Books can present the same challenge (hence the need for Post-It notes). There are two reasons why users may not follow a link immediately:

  • They have to stop what they are doing with the transmedia narrative so they can attend to something outside the storyworld.
  • They found something else in the storyworld that attracted their attention and are attending to that instead.

In either case, the user may lose track of where in they are or forget important pieces of information. Transmedia narrative designers need to consider how they can provide ways for the user to work with connections both immediately and over the long-term. This could include everything from keeping the overall design simple enough that it’s not an issue to leaving breadcrumbs of the user’s route to drawing maps (actual as well as cognitive maps).

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