Don’t Mistake Interaction for Engagement

A common mistake when designing transmedia projects is to use the concepts of “engagement” and “interaction” interchangeably. While they are interrelated, audience engagement and user interaction are distinctly different. 

This distinction is based on the different mental processes used when reading and navigating a transmedia story. These processes are:

  • Reading mode (audience engagement) that involves mentally processing the story’s content to determine its emotional and intellectual meaning.
  • Navigation mode (user interaction) that involves physically and mentally processing cues needed to navigate through the medium used to present the story.

A transmedia story needs to be designed so the mental effort needed for navigation (the user interaction) does not interfere with the mental effort required to understand the story intellectually and emotionally (audience engagement). Effective transmedia design requires a balancing act in which the author minimizes the mental energy used to navigate the story so it can be used to figure out the intellectual and emotional meaning of the content.

Perhaps the simplest user interfaces is watching a movie in a dark theater. Once settled into a (hopefully) comfortable seat, the user need do nothing more than sit back and let the story engage the intellect and emotions. Only slightly more complex is the user interface of the traditional book. Interacting with a book – opening it, reading the text or viewing the pictures, and then turning to the next page – requires a minimal amount of mental effort, leaving plenty of brain power to focus on understanding the meaning of what the author has created.

The beauty of the interfaces on most of today’s e-book readers and tablets is their simplicity. The content of an e-book and a website could be identical, but the mental and physical effort involved in navigating the e-book is significantly less than for a comparable website. A quick touch or swipe of the finger is all it takes to move from page to page on for most e-books.

Navigating a website on a computer, however, is a multi-step process involving reaching for the mouse or touch pad; searching for and identifying the target scroll bar, link, or button; moving the cursor to the target; clicking on the target; and resuming reading the content. While the time it takes to do this is usually a fraction of a second, the reader’s attention shifts away from the content of the story and focuses on navigating from page to page.

This shift in focus and attention is magnified when a story uses multiple media. Robert Pratten coined the term “friction” to describe how this attention shift (along with additional keystrokes, low bandwidth, increased cost, and other factors) negatively affects the reader’s movement from one media element to another in a transmedia story.

A high-quality user experience is created by using effective interface design to minimize friction while maximizing the incentives to move across media platforms through effective audience engagement design.

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