The Debt Trap

Who’s to blame for the mountains of debt facing so many consumers in America and beyond? The Debt Trap, a Flash-based interactive from the New York Times, attempts to answer this question through a series of videos, articles, slideshows, and interactive graphics.

How It Works

The Debt Trap is more a way to bring together Times stories and interactives about personal debt than it is an original series. The user navigates between these different pieces through a series of simple, topical sentences in which keywords link to other pages. For example, clicking on the words “drowning in debt” in the sentence “Many Americans, drowning in debt, now face a lifetime of repayment” brings up a text article about Diane McLeod, a women who is indeed drowning in debt. Clicking on “your” in the sentence “How heavy is your debt load?” brings up an interactive graphic that allows you to input your own debt levels and see where you stand compared to the rest of the U.S. according to age and income.

For those who like to see everything at once, there is also an index with every article in the series listed.

What Works, What Doesn’t

A simple method of navigation has both its plusses and minuses. On the one hand, it’s easy to use. The user just reads the sentence and clicks on a link. On the other hand, the whole is pretty much equal to the sum of its parts. Reading the individual stories one after another makes for a rather disjointed overall experience. There isn’t much there to connect the different content together beyond the shared topic. Sentences like “Debt devastates young, middle-aged and older Americans alike” or “Beyond America, credit card use is exploding” don’t add that much context.

Plus, clicking on the text articles sends the user to a separate page on the Times website. Should the user want to return to the series page, they have to start from the beginning.

That said, most of the content is well done. The text articles add context to the reporting. The videos tell the stories of individuals trying to cope with high levels of personal debt. Hearing them tell their own stories gives the issue a personal touch. The interactive graphics such as a timeline that tracks the history of American debt levels communicate further context in a way that isn’t overwhelming or boring. And one graphic allows the user to compare their own debt level to the US as a whole. Only the photo slideshows fail to be compelling (but then, how do you photograph debt?).

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