Critique of MSNBC’s Battle of the Bags: Paper vs. Plastic

Paper or plastic? Such a simple question. Often, it boils down to convenience – “Can I use these later?”, “Will I actually recycle these?”, or “Can I even submit these for recycling?”. Yet, it is a critical question, and one that could have a major impact on our future, from an energy standpoint, as well as an environmental one. The factors associated with this problem are many, and there is little agreement between companies, businesses, or even states about the solution. That’s where this interactive experience kicks off – right in the midst of the debate. Using video clips, sound bytes, and even interactive surveys and calculators, the MSNBC experience Battle of the Bags: Paper vs. Plasticjumps into the issue head on. Structured as a well written news report or a nicely organized speech, this mini-documentary leads the viewer in a relatively unbiased examination of the issue, covering the main points quite well. In this brief analysis, I will examine the positive points of the interaction, the areas that could use improvement, and then will finish with some ideas of ways to improve the experience. 

The experience begins quite well, with a catchy opening, teasing you in by posing interesting questions, much like a documentary or news broadcast. Following the introduction video, the user is first introduced to the system’s user interface. A simple point and click interface, made of big bold arrows, allows for seamless navigation between the various “pages” of the experience. Easy to use, and familiar, the UI really lends itself to this sort of interaction. Given the possible broad audience, including this sort of simple interface is definitely a good idea, and makes for a more positive user experience. In addition to using the interface to navigate the “pages”, there are also controls to stop and play the videos, and control the sound as necessary. These simple buttons are extremely useful in an experience such as this, as they allow the user to adjust the system to their needs, instead of the other way around. Though certainly not a defining feature of the experience, these minor features add a needed layer of customizability. The content itself is quite well presented, using a logical structure found in many similar works. Presenting arguments from both sides, the piece does a good job remaining unbiased, showing both the pros and cons of each grocery storage medium. The inclusion of an interactive “balance sheet” allows the user to see the various effects of these storage bags in real time, adjusting the values to show how different changes can impact the larger picture. I really enjoyed this part of the experience, as it allowed me to really involve myself and look into the various facets of the debate I had been presented with earlier. Another really beneficial part of the experience was the “point/counter-point” section, where two people involved on differing sides of the debate weighed in on a variety of topics. Being able to hear the full responses of these two individuals, though lengthy, really helped make the experience seem even less biased, and improved the credibility of the creators considerably. Overall, I was very impressed with the experience, as an interactive media piece, and found myself actually coming to a conclusion at the end of the debate. However, for all of this praise, there are still a few things that were a bit of a problem for this experience.

The first issue I found with the experience as a whole is the dated feel it has. There isn’t a lot of modern design incorporated, and the experience is a bit duller because of it. This is certainly not a deal breaker, but it would be nice to feel that the experience was a bit more modern and well designed. This leads into another minor issue: the video controls are relatively unintuitive. Though it is great that they are there, having less than obvious functionality makes them a bit less useful, and sometimes downright confusing. For instance, the pause button is shown as active by changing the color of the button every few seconds, creating a flashing effect. This is a less than obvious way to show something as active, as it has states that are not 100% different from each other. If the user quickly press the button multiple times, it will never even show the first “flash”, so the button seems inactive. This sort of lackluster control scheme brings the experience down a bit, as it can confuse and disenchant a user, possibly driving them away from the flow of the experience. Tools should be useful and easy to activate, making the experience more customizable, and allowing for more immersion. Another strange issue with the controls is the removal of them from certain screens. The screens that are more “slide-show” based have no options for control of any kind, and just play on their own. There is no way to pause, play or even mute the screen. If a user needs to quiet the experience, they must navigate away from that screen, and then return. This is both confusing, as it does not fit with the rest of the experience, as well as slightly off-putting for the user, as they now need to completely interrupt the flow of the experience to allow it to work around their lives. In terms of the content and experience flow, there is little to really complain about. The experience does suffer from some pacing issues, especially once the “point/counter-point” section begins, as the user is expected to parse through a large amount of content on their own, which could lead to some potential drop of users at that point. It seems fairly unlikely, though, as the user can easily just move to the next screen if they become bored. However, the largest issue with this experience is the lack of accessibility for those with disabilities. Design of an experience must be as universal as possible, and should be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Having an audio based experience, and not including subtitles is a huge problem, as it completely blocks out a large minority of the population. Deaf and hard of hearing people will not be able to enjoy much, if any of the experience, and would likely be quite confused by the presentation. The only partially redeeming part about the experience, in regards to this issue is the blurb that appears on the first slide saying “This experience contains audio”. This cold sentiment at least lets those without the ability to hear know that they shouldn’t bother with this experience any further. In this modern era, there is little excuse for any experience to be this minimally accessible, and this factor really brings the experience to a lower level, fitting more in with design standards of the last decade. However, all is not lost, as many of these gripes could be easily fixed and/or minimized with some simple tweaks.

The first few things that need tweaking have already been discussed, including an updated, and more intuitive UI. Adjusting and re-factoring the way the user controls the content would go a long way towards making this experience more polished and useable. After that, I would definitely look at the way that the content is delivered. The web player feels a bit cramped, and doesn’t really feel like a separate experience, more like a web page that was just a poorly designed template. In addition to this, making the entire experience more accessible is a must. Given the wide range of users on the MSNBC web portal, it is imperative that users of as many demographics as possible be considered, and the content made to suit their various needs. Finally, I would work to increase the amount of interactive points there were in the experience. There are just enough in this experience to allow for some good interaction, but there is room for improvement. Making the content and it’s delivery more engaging is really the key to getting users to consider the work as part of their own life experience, and possibly apply the concepts to it.

All in all, this experience is a fairly well designed interactive documentary or news report. Though it has it’s problems, the content was informative and engaging, and kept my attention throughout the entire piece. The interactions did not feel forced, and were integrated well into the flow, breaking up the monotony with interesting facts and exploratory features. By allowing the user to validate and explore the claims presented by the experience, the information presented becomes more interesting and believable to the user. By giving the user the chance to interact with the content, there is an increase in both user engagement, as well as the chance that the user will complete the experience. This method of presentation works well for controversial topics, as it allows the user to come to their own conclusions, and make judgment over more of the facts than a normal newscast or documentary would allow. I would really like to see more content like this being developed in the future, as it could really change the face of the news media for the better.

Works Cited

1.) “Battle of the Bags: Paper vs. Plastic.”, n.d. Web. 26

    Mar. 2013. <>. 

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