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Producing interactive media in a digital-savvy world

Today I’d like to use a sledgehammer to drive home an exceedingly subtle point, because in the end I hope to break something: your ego.

What if I told you that what you do is not important? And that if you were able to maintain a clear focus on what is important, your technical, creative and commercial decision making would become clearer, more efficient and more effective.
What if I told you that what you do is not important? And that if you were able to maintain a clear focus on what is important, your technical, creative and commercial decision making would become clearer, more efficient and more effective.

Consider the following:

  • The act of writing a well constructed, engaging piece of content is not important.
  • The act of designing a beautiful, intuitive user interface is not important.
  • The act of producing a beautiful, thought-provoking video… not important.

I stress “the act” because it is the doing, the intent behind it, and how that relates to the final product’s success that I’m interested in here.

So, we’ve worked out that what you do is not important… we can all knock off then, right? Put the beer down, tiger, we haven’t got to the crux of this idea yet, and that is to ask: “What is important?”

Quite simply: the audience (read: end user, consumer of media, learner, etc) is the only truly important facet in the media production process. Why else is anything created other than to be consumed?

Seems obvious? Probably, but bear with me…

The ego-trap that we can set for ourselves is when we are good at what we do we become focussed on solving problems and creating great work according to our own criteria. Ideally we want to be focussed on message, aesthetics, usability and readability… all good things, all important, but what we do and why we do it should ultimately be seen as completely divorced from the end product and its reception by the audience.

Eyes on the prize.

“A photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see.” – Roland Barthes

But why? How can we disconnect ourselves from the audience that will be served by the fruits of our labour? It may seem counter-intuitive and counter-productive, therefore I think it’s helpful at this stage to reference Roland Barthes‘ landmark essay “La mort de l’auteur”, or translated from the french, “The Death of the Author”.

In short, Barthes argues that, from a literary perspective, any meaning we associate with a text lies exclusively in the language itself and in its impressions on the reader. He argues that the author’s intent is irrelevant (or, not important) to the text’s meaning.

In essence he is saying that the interpretation of (and let’s say the interaction with) the media we create has nothing to do with the creator and everything to do with the audience, because it is the reader that defines the meaning (and a potentially infinite variety of meanings) each time the text is read. The author is merely a kind of conduit for the ideas. These ideas only exist because the language itself exists and enables the formation of those ideas. And therefore, by extension, the language and the ability to interpret it is shared by all, placing ownership of the ideas with he or she who reads and interprets them. Thus, the author is dead, the audience is born.

OK. Deep breath. That’s a big idea. How does it apply to us?

Firstly, while Barthes was speaking specifically about literary criticism (asking the question of whether or not it is important to know what the writer’s intention was when interpreting the meaning of a text), his ideas can and have been applied to creativity, media and cultural production in a broad sense.

n communications theory, a “text” may be any type of media: a website, an app, a blog, an image, a film, a piece of music, etc. “Reading” can mean watching, listening, looking, interacting… and actual reading too; it is the consuming and interpreting of media. The “language” may be that of design, film, photo/graphic composition, or of the written word. Regardless of the form of the text and the language used to encode it, the argument remains the same, that as creators of a text our intent is irrelevant, and that the only thing that really matters is the audience’s “reading” or interpretation of it.

So how do we translate these ideas into our work-life? Consider these two mental approaches to the one task:

Ben: “I need to design a great UI to ensure the end user remains clear and engaged throughout the task they wish to complete.”


Alison: “The end user needs to complete a task, for which the UI must ensure a clear and suitably engaging process.”

What do you notice about these two statements?

Ben immediately relates the problem at hand to the work he is about to carry out and his skills as a designer. Alison has divorced herself completely from the statement. Her focus is on the audience and the UI they will interact with.

It is a subtle difference, but the implications for how you approach problems and solutions can be incredibly powerful.

I think we all start out with good intentions. The wheels often come off when we start incorporating outside feedback from collaborators and clients, and when technical and budgetary hurdles present themselves. Often we look for a solution and forget where we originally placed our focus. The day-to-days of getting a project completed and out the door can distract us from the lofty standards we set out with. In the face of an increasingly digital-savvy audience, who are more clued-in than ever to the forever-developing language of digital interactivity, it is all the more important to start with the end in mind, and maintain that focus.

Keeping our ‘eyes on the prize’ has to be about holding focus and being able to recall it at every stage of a project, from inception to development to delivery, and especially when solving problems. It’s about remembering that no matter how good we are at doing what we do, what we’re doing in each moment of our working day is never as important as the moment the audience engages with our product.

Comments are open and we’d love to hear about your experiences in (and tips for) managing your ego and maintaining focus throughout your process. Just remember our friend, Barthes when commenting: my intentions here are irrelevant, your interpretation of this article and how you apply it in your life is what matters.

Justin Cruickshank is a media production specialist with 11+ years industry experience across film and video production, journalism, music and audio production, digital production and elearning production. He’s now enjoying life with The Learning Hook as our Learning Designer/Project Manager.

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  1. Tanya Lau says:

    Hi Justin, awesome post and very thought provoking. This is something I've been considering over the last few months too as I've been piloting a lot of elearning programs with end users/audiences. The importance of removing your ego, listening and observing how people use and interpret what you create becomes very clear. It's an invaluable experience but something alas we often don't do enough of.

  2. I really like Justin's post too – it made me unpack what it means to be a creator of content or perhaps better yet, and simpler – a communicator.

    A side note: A major client of ours used to test our courseware using a two way mirror set-up. Very impressive indeed to be able to see real users on the other side of the mirror testing, and their reactions were also recorded i.e. they were encouraged to verbally comment as they went through training and we got all this as feedback on usability. This was a big investment from the client, and a fantastic feedback loop for all the designers and developers involved. Brings home the point about the audience right?

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