Waterlife

There is no doubt that the Great Lakes are important. We drink the water in them. We ship goods via them. We sail on them. But are the Great Lakes interesting? That’s harder to say. And yet, Waterlife, a Flash-based multimedia interactive about the Great Lakes created by the NFB to complement the documentary of the same name, is interesting. It’s amazing what a slick navigation system and the right mix of media can do for a topic.

How It Works

Waterlife begins with 23 different definitions for “water.” Water is history. It’s neglect. It’s power. It’s healing. It’s in you and me.

Clicking on a definition brings up a text quote which gives way to a series of short bits of text on the topic. Depending on the section, either a looped video plays in the background behind the text (the text can be hidden to get a better look at the video) or the user can interact with a virtual desktop (complete with movable paper clips, sticky notes, and photos). There is the occasional interactive graphic, pop up with more information, or link to an outside website for further information.

While the user is reading, one or more anonymous audio sound bites (which one assumes are from the documentary) play in the background along with soothing music (Sigur Ros and Philip Glass are included on the soundtrack).

There are different ways to navigate through Waterlife. Along with the list of “What Is…” definitions, there is also a navigation bar at the bottom of the screen made up of a series of blue vertical lines that rise and fall like a wave as the user passes their cursor over them. There is also a map of the Great Lakes made up of small photos that acts as a sort of contents page. Click on one of the pictures and the map breaks apart like a school of fish swimming together and reforms into shapes that relate the topic chosen.

What Works, What Doesn’t

While the combination of text, video, interactive elements, and sound bites may sound like a lot of information to take in at once, every element is kept short enough that the user can shift their focus from one thing to the next without much difficulty. Single pages of text aren’t usually more than a few paragraphs and the sound bites are only a few seconds long.

The downside of this is that only so much information is presented in any given section. And with 23 different topics that cover everything from fishing to pollution to dredging, the user never gets more than a cursory look at the various issues affecting the Great Lakes. Should they want to know more, they have to follow the links and leave Waterlife.

Furthermore, the information that is presented can be rather technical. Paragraphs begin with “Many experts believe that…” or “There are approximately…” The sound bites are left anonymous so the user doesn’t know who is speaking. There are no characters to connect to. This makes Waterlife a rather impersonal experience, a problem when the subject matter is already so technical.

The overall narrative thrust is not strong. While every section is about the Great Lakes, they don’t connect to each other beyond the common topic. The sections come in an order, but there’s no real reason to follow it. Indeed, the user doesn’t have to. They can just click on one of the pictures that makes up the map of the Great Lakes to randomly access one of the topics.

Where Waterlife does better is with overall tone. Much care was taken with the design and navigation of Waterlife to give it a suitably fluid, tranquil feel. The way images come together like fish. The soothing music. The cool colour pallet used. It all evokes the feeling of actually being in the water.

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