The Big Issue

The Big Issue opens with a statement and a question: “Human kind is getting fatter. Why?” This French Flash-based multimedia documentary travels two continents to investigate the global obesity epidemic. There are stops in France, California, Quebec, and Belgium. The user learns about bariatric surgery, the glut of fast-food restaurants in underprivileged neighbourhoods, and the difficulties in imposing top-down government solutions to the problem of obesity. In this way, they can investigate the global obesity epidemic from the comfort of their own couch.

How It Works

The Big Issue is designed to be an immersive experience. The user doesn’t just watch the documentary – it is as if they are right there, asking the questions and deciding where to go next. This is done with a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure” style of navigation. At different points during an interview, a choice of questions will appear at the bottom of the screen. For example, during an interview with an obese Frenchman, the user has the choice of asking “Do you think you’re responsible for your weight problem?” “Do you watch a lot of television?” or “Are many of your family members obese?” When the user clicks on one, the interviewee’s response to that question plays. When the user grows tired of asking questions, they are given a choice of where to go next.

Visually, The Big Issue is mostly a series of photographs of the different places the user goes to and the people they meet. There is also the occasional video. The responses of interviewees are usually audio only. Music or ambient noise plays in the background. All other information, such as where the user is, who exactly they are talking to, and statistics about obesity, appears as text.

From time to time, the user can click on a pop up for extra information related to their current location. There is also an obesity map that tells you what percentage of a given country is obese, highlighting the global scale of the problem.

A complete menu allows quick navigation between locations, handy if the user wants to backtrack if they miss something.

What Works, What Doesn’t

The novel “choose-your-own-adventure” style of navigation is suppose the make the user feel like they are in control of the narrative, but it can also be rather frustrating. The number of questions the user can choose between is limited enough that the user still often feels like they’re being led through the documentary, but plentiful enough that they can often miss something and have to backtrack to get the full story. Ultimately, the conceit that it is the user visiting these places and talking to these people is a weak one. It is one thing to include interactivity in a web documentary but it is quite another to create a completely immersive experience.

More successful is the mix of media used. Using audio for interviewee responses and text for contextual information nicely separates the personal and the impersonal. The combination of audio responses, ambient sounds, and photographs creates a strong sense of place. And when videos are used, they are often used very effectively. For example, a video taken in Los Angeles from a moving car passing one fast-food restaurant after another emphasizes the fact that healthier options are often hard to come by.

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