Problem and Approach
Can digital storytelling be used to facilitate cross-cultural understanding and advance social justice?
In American society, museums serve as an educational resource, as well as a place for entertainment. In 2009, it was estimated that there were 850 million visits to American museums each year, dwarfing visits to all major league sporting events and theme parks combined in the United States (American Alliance of Museums, 2018). In their role as an informal learning environment (ILE), museums have employed storytelling techniques to disseminate information. Storytelling has the ability to allow participants to: create and maintain social bonds; express ideas and feelings about themselves to others; reflect and construct the ways they see the world; and conceive possible futures (Pujol, et al. 2013; Clarke & Wright 2012). In an ever-increasing technological world, museums have been integrating technology (digital touch interfaces, motion capture, virtual reality, augmented reality, etc.) to engage audiences. According to Clarke and Wright (2012) and Gubrium and Scott (2010), this type of digital storytelling supports social recognition and shared values, and is a tactic to building awareness of human rights and social justice issues.
Despite these numerous benefits, digital storytelling is not always effectively carried out in a way that advances social justice (JafariNaimi 2018). Rather, the ubiquity of digital media technologies can sometimes lead to misuse of digital storytelling that works to exploit, undermine, and harm marginalized communities. How can digital storytelling be used to facilitate cross-cultural understanding and advance social justice?
There needs to be more analysis of digital storytelling as a means for people to learn about cultures different than their own.
Through Object/Place, I explore theories of cross-cultural digital storytelling, object-oriented learning, and participation in museums. The final digital media artifact is an interactive installation that uses storytelling in order to address the perceived differences between local and refugee communities in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The project works to bridge the gap between communities and explore the commonalities we may overlook when we label people as “displaced” or “refugees.” Through common objects, the interactive serves as an entry point to stories that connect us. As Gubrium and Scott (2010) posit, digital storytelling “affords participants the capacity to produce a tangible artifact that represents their own experiences and, as a group, to articulate a more hopeful future rooted in principles of human rights and social justice” (p. 129). As digital storytelling methods become increasingly prevalent in educational spaces, like museums, it is worth exploring the effect on cross-cultural learning or intercultural competence and understanding.
Before designing the interactive, I first reviewed existing literature on the aforementioned topics of cross-cultural digital storytelling, object-oriented learning, and participation in museums. In this design research phase, I did not yet have an exact concept of what the final artifact would look like or feel like, instead allowing the theories to guide the formation of design criteria and design decisions.
I then explored existing related projects that capture one or more elements of digital storytelling and cross-cultural dialogue. There were very few that captured all of the elements discussed above. However, each project below represents a facet of the conversation. From large physical installations to audio narratives, the following projects offer a lesson in designing a participatory and engaging experience.
After reviewing literature and related media, I developed a set of design criteria. My design criteria were that the user must be able to:
navigate individual-group-material dimensions, and
contribute their own story.
My initial concepts were heavily skewed towards a web-based screen (1920 x 1080) and an object-first attitude. My visioning of the project was graphics-based with animation and microinteractions. By concepting these ideas with quick sketches, I had to put the content first and prioritize the bare minimum information, look, and feel of the interactive.
In these initial sketches, I expanded on my explorations in the concepting phase to develop a more fleshed out experience that more directly applied the design criteria. I also considered more of the interactions that would be present in the final artifact. However, still at a sketching phase, I made sure to keep these as basic as possible and to focus on information architecture.
I brought these concepts, sketches, and newfound inspiration (by way of the mood board) into Adobe XD, focusing on the visual weight and the information architecture of the piece.
At this point, I decided on five categories: sports, food, business, community, and education. Each category had two objects—one from the local community and one from the refugee community.
As I implemented the project, it was very important for me to make an aesthetically-pleasing piece that would be both engaging and participatory. A part of this was iterating on the fly and sticking to the constraints of the software I was using. Finally, it was most important for me to make a piece that worked on a tablet.
The final designs were made for the 10.5 in iPad Pro (2224 px x 1668 px). It is touch screen. The experience begins with a four-second-long intro video that introduces the title (Object/Place), a short summary, and credits in the top right. At this point, it is up to the user to start the interactive (“TOUCH ANYWHERE TO BEGIN”). Otherwise, visitors are allowed the opportunity simply pass by.
Once the user touches anywhere to begin, the “Attract” screen appears (Figure 5.2). The attract is this initial screen that draws the user in and presents the information. In Figure 5.2, all five of the categories appear, as well as every single object (in their merged form). This page is intentionally cinematic, allowing the objects to appear to be in a physical space, interacting with the world around them and existing in the same environment as one another. I Photoshopped a scene of a soccer field with a picnic table and a metal pole, allowing all the objects to exist in the same scene.
In the top left of the screen is the logo. Pressing the logo brings the user back to this Attract screen. There is a close-out button on the top right, which brings the user back to the intro video. The bottom navigation is tucked in the bottom left corner, rather than taking up the entire bottom line. This bottom navigation allows the user to go “back” or to “explore all” the objects on a separate page.
Tools and Workflow
The final artifact was implemented in the interactive documentary software, Klynt. Although I have experience with this software, the constraints were sometimes difficult, as was the workflow. I used Photoshop to cut out graphics and to design the interface. I added advanced animatiosn in Premiere Pro. I then brought these .PSD files and .MOV files into Klynt, where I added more microinteractions and developed the paths and flow. In order to keep track of content, I used Google Sheets. For the contribution section, I used Google Forms and iFrames within the Klynt interface.
All of the interactions were completed in Premiere Pro and/or Klynt. I used Premiere Pro (the video editing software) for more advanced animations. In Klynt, I created paths to trigger these animations. In addition, I was able to create microinteractions right inside of the Klynt interface using the Photoshop document layers that I pulled in.
I did some informal feedback throughout the process, increasing the number with the penultimate iteration. I took these findings in the informal feedback stage to the first round of usability testing. I tested the final artifact with six users more formally. With each user, I conducted a think-aloud test, in which the user would narrate their experience navigating the interface. Once they have sufficiently experienced the interactive (at their own discretion), I asked them eight questions, listed below:
1. What was the goal of the interactive?
2. Did you know how to get to the “Attract” page? If so, explain.
3. What information is available on the “Object Preview” screen?
4. What information is available on the “Expanded” screen?
5. What did you learn?
6. What was the most frustrating part of the experience?
7. What was the most delightful part of the experience?
8. If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make? Unlimited time and budget.
Learning Outcomes and Future Work
Object/Place is just one application of digital storytelling for cross-cultural learning, and just one way to go about testing these theories. I believe that there is a lot of work to be done in this area and to build on the existing research. I am excited about the possibilities in this realm and I am motivated by the discussions and work on these topics. As someone who works at the intersection of user experience and social impact, this project was particularly interesting and insightful. Again, however, this is but a starting point to further develop understanding of cross-cultural understanding, digital storytelling, and advancing social justice through design. I hope that scholars and practitioners alike work to expand on this knowledge.
Theoretically, I believe there is opportunity to build on the existing research that I have put forth here, including Clarke and Wright (2012), Wood and Latham (2013), JafariNaimi (Under Review), Simon (2010), Paris and Hapgood (2002), and more. There are some thorough studies and work that I have enumerated here, but many others I have not. In particular, I am interested in competing perspectives that focus on the threat and failure of digital storytelling in cross-cultural contexts in a similar vein as JafariNaimi (Under Review). I am also interested in more specific case studies dealing with marginalized communities that can provide both quantitative and qualitative information.
In terms of the project, there is opportunity to make Object/Place much more participatory. On the scale that Simon (2010) presents, Object/Place falls under a “contributory project,” which is the simplest to manage and the simplest for visitors to engage with. However, with more dedicated work with the communities that the project is concerned with, Object/Place could be a more collaborative project. For the purposes of this project (and given the short timeline), I was more concerned with the feasibility in exploring digital storytelling to facilitate cross-cultural understanding. To this point, there is opportunity to conduct more testing and to iterate based on those findings.
From a design and installation perspective, I believe that Object/Place is still fairly rudimentary and could be developed further. Given the timing and scope of the project, I only implemented the interactive on an iPad Pro, with a casing. Although this format allowed for a “mobile installation” of sorts, I would like to see this adapted for the museum environment. I would particularly like to see this in the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta, GA, where I volunteer. In my experience there, there was no mention of Clarkston (which is 25 minutes away) and the refugee communities in the Atlanta metropolitan area. I think there is an opportunity here to connect CCHR visitors with local Atlanta knowledge. Although I had some correspondence with the CCHR Director of Exhibitions about their Summer 2019 refugee exhibition, the scope and timing of the project did not allow for such collaboration.
There are multiple opportunities that Object/Place presents.
Dedicated Documentation Site: http://dwig.lmc.gatech.edu/projects/golfo/