Wednesday 28 November 2012, 12:00
My name is Helene Sears and I'm an Editorial Designer for BBC News.
My team produces a huge range of visuals including all of the daily charts, maps and infographics that accompany our online news stories.
We also work on longer interactive features which have ranged from visually explaining the Eurozone crisis to a calculator that tells you where you are on the global pay scale.
Recently developer Steven Atherton and I did a first for BBC News: we created an infographic using parallax scrolling - a technique originally used in 2D video games to create a 3D look and feel.
James Bond: Cars, catchphrases and kisses on BBC News
The subject we chose was a feature about the James Bond movie franchise reaching its 50 year anniversary - not urgent or the highest priority - but a good place to experiment.
The best thing about my job is that we have a fantastic opportunity to try out new approaches and get immediate feedback from our audience.
Watching our TV designers create motion graphics using After Effects reminded me of parallax scrolling.
Inspired by their work I came up with the idea of building an infographic using this technique which involves multiple layers of visuals programmed to scroll at different speeds.
I wanted to use parallax not because of its popularity but because I felt it would lend itself exceptionally well to the James Bond content.
The motion effect creates the feel of the opening credits and it would also allow me to showcase the epic visuals of the films.
First I built a prototype.
A couple of years ago I worked with Ste Everington, a UX Designer for BBC iPlayer, who had built a parallax site for his own project so I knew it could be done, though my code skills are basic at best.
After reading this tutorial I took parts of the code, redirected it to my images and then did some basic calculations to work out the alignment figures (where the images should go).
I was then able to get a prototype together in Dreamweaver (yes Dreamweaver, I did say my code is basic).
Helene working out the coding for the infographic on Dreamweaver
It took me less than a day to make something that was strong enough to convey the idea.
Building 'James Bond: Cars, catchphrases and kisses'
Having built my prototype by eyeballing distances, it was fascinating to watch developer Steven Atherton work and build the page mathematically correctly.
The first major stumbling block was interaction of the parallax background with the BBC News page.
The manipulation of the DOM elements gave the impression that the whole page was in parallax.
Sometimes this created odd gaps between images and at others the content would drift up - at one point we had Sean Connery in the masthead.
Then came the next round of challenges: making sure it worked on older browsers - all the way down to IE6, that the EMP (audio clip players) would scale down to 256 pixels wide and that the whole thing would also work on tablets.
Steven's first thought was to create a viewport to contain the parallax, but a few initial experiments showed that while this was technically possible it wasn't a great user experience.
The solution seemed to be controlling the animation speed more precisely and easing the animation early thus hiding unsightly overlaps with the masthead.
To handle adverts or introduction text being inserted we captured the distances dynamically and had the animations interact accordingly.
The animation starts slowly as the user scrolls down the page and speeds-up once the top of the feature hits the top of the users' browser window, eventually stopping altogether when the footer aligns with the bottom of the feature.
It was much easier to make corrections by sitting with Steven and using Firebug as opposed to the much less agile method of sending him annotated images from Illustrator.
Helene does some basic calculations to work out the alignment figures
When it launched the response was overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of comments that came in were about how great it was we were using big bold visuals and how much fun the page was.
We did have a couple of comments about the fact it's not on the mobile site and that it's a very heavy page to load at nearly seven megabytes.
The size isn't a huge surprise considering the graphic was 13,000 pixels long - we normally try to stay no deeper than 620 pixels and at the moment all of our content is stripped out of the mobile site. It's a complex problem that we are working hard to resolve.
Meanwhile one of my colleagues in World Service was working on an innovative feature that also pushed the boundaries of the page.
Nour Saab and Steven Conner designed a feature on the importance of the Latino vote in the United States.
The page progressively reveals the content as the user scrolls and its development presented similar challenges to our parallax feature.
It was fantastic to see the evolution of the designs and to have another designer experimenting with code.
Our experiments with parallax scrolling and with other HTML5 techniques are barely scratching the surface.
First and foremost we are about telling the story.
Using parallax scrolling for the Bond feature allowed us to present information in an engaging way that enhances the content without overpowering it and we'll be looking for ways to use this approach again on bigger news stories.
There is much more to be done as more and more of our audience is coming to us via tablets and smart devices which present a whole new set of challenges for us as infographic designers.
This project had the support of the Visual Journalism team, and I'd like to send a big thank you to everyone who helped make it a reality.
Helene Sears is the Editorial Designer for UX&D.
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