The Idiot Box

The boxes

It may sound odd, but I’m really not sold on how most news sites are currently using video. At best the topic engenders me with a mild sort of ambivalence: “Meh, that’s nice.” These days my typical reaction to gee-whiz embedded video doodads in article pages is to ignore them. It’s a pathological habit caused by subtle nagging issues. I think we can, and should, do better.

What it really boils down to is a forced rate of consumption.

Force Feeding

When I’m reading a news article I can instantly and effortlessly shift from attentive reading to scanning. I can vary the rate of consumption to suit my needs, at any moment and without difficulty. Text is conducive to this. That’s paramount in news/editorial environments, where the value proposition is all about timely information exchange. As a user I can choose to be more or less engaged as the situation merits. I can choose to sacrifice depth for speed (or vice versa) whenever I darn well feel like it—and still get what I need.

I can’t do that with video. At least not in its current incarnations.

Video forces full engagement on its own terms. The time it takes to watch the video is the time it takes to watch the video. Sure, you can try speeding it up (in a rare few applications) or scrubbing around with the playhead, but both are poor analogs to scanning text. With most videos the best you can hope for is a passing idea of context, maybe a notion of tone. (Imagine jogging around your standard talking head news video. Still worse, voiceover scenes.) And both methods require too much fiddling on the user’s part anyway.

A (Few) Modest Proposal(s)

One solution might be what I call, for lack of a better term, “scanning captions”. Imagine if when you clicked on the playhead (or used a keyboard shortcut) and began scrubbing, a text overlay with a few words instantly appeared, and updated as you moved around, quickly telegraphing what’s going on in the video during that particular time span. Essentially these are just captions that activate automatically when scrubbing, but with much more abstract text. Not much—just enough to convey context.

Scanning captions example

Or you could take those same captions and place them alongside the video as segment names, highlighting the current one and letting the user jump to to any of them with a click.

Segment names example

These are just some off-the-cuff ideas I sketched out in a few minutes this afternoon. The point is it wouldn’t take a whole lot to offer a more genuinely useful experience to the user.

Stay Tuned

Maybe I’m splitting hairs with all of this. I hate to drag out the old cliché, but I’m definitely not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, video is a useful medium in its own right. Yes, we should keep using it. But until some of these little nits are worked out it will probably never be quite as rich (and humane) a resource as we hope.