The Shirt on Your Back — a critique on the user journey of this interactive documentary

Have you thought about the workers making clothes for you when you’ve bought a 10 pound shirt from a high-street fashion store? What is behind the low prices? The shirt on your back, an interactive documentary produced by the guardian in 2014, investigated into the human cost of Bangladeshi garment industry and traced the miserable life of garment workers. So what makes this documentary different from the others? Does its “interactivity” provide a satisfying user experience?

screenshot from “the shirt on your back”

Let’s first think about what do we usually see in the most common documentaries: visually appealing videos, heart-touching interviews, and a well-written voice narrative to guide the audience through the story — under the point of view of the producer. Like them, the shirt on your back also contains well-shot videos and interviews. But instead of using a voice-over narrative, the shirt on your back uses explanative text as a thread throughout the story. So how is the effect of text different from that of voice?

Narrative voice, by which I mean narrator’s human voice, not natural sound or music, asks audience to follow a linear storyline, and jumping between the time line will result in a feeling of “getting lost”: because audience don’t know what has been said before, and they usually need to wait and listen a while to notice what is going on in the story. Besides, adding any other narrative voice will destroy the audience’s experience, just like you can’t listen to two people talking at the same time. In a word, the audience experience in a voice-narrated documentary is usually restricted to a fixed, linear story line.

screenshot from “the shirt on your back”

But in the shirt on your back project, audience’s freedom of exploration is increased thanks to different texts on the same screen. Firstly, the audience’s attention is drawn to the main texts on the left-hand side, which explains a particular story element; Also at the same time, the audience will notice that smaller texts appear on the right hand side as their mouse hover over the navigation bar, which indicates they can jump between chapters and watch different parts of the story by clicking. So if the content does not interest you, just find what you need in the navigation bar, click and go there. Therefore in this case, the audience enjoy more freedom in the sense that they can either follow the path and watch the story from the beginning to the end, or to explore the story on their wish. However, this type of freedom is still limited, because they can only jump between the producer’s pre-determined storyline.

Although this documentary is innovative in the sense of embedding multiple media elements and giving audience some freedom to explore, there are several things which can be done to improve the audience experience.

screenshot from “the shirt on your back”

First, simplify the language and structure. if you take out all the text from this interactive documentary and read it, you will find the language and the structure are nearly the same as a magazine article.

For example in this documentary, it begins with “It was the worst industrial accident anywhere in the world….”, telling the user that the theme of this web documentary is about the Rana Plaza disaster, however what follows is a long introduction of the city and the main character’s family. The Rana Plaza disaster doesn’t show up until the fifth chapter. Besides, between the chapter which describes the accident scene and chapter “aftermath”, a chapter called “foundations” is inserted in between, describing the general background of garment labor industry in Bangladesh. This structure may work well in print where authors are allowed to “pave the way” before showing the most important content, but here as a viewer I feel it’s confusing and my visual journey was interrupted.

Since web is different from print, the content must match its medium. Audience have different expectations when browsing a website compared to reading an magazine. On web, people want to get information faster, therefore the language needs to be easy and the structure needs to be clear. Otherwise, audience can easily turn around to somewhere else.

screenshot from “the shirt on your back”

My second suggestion for this project is to improve the interaction section. This project has posed a great question for every viewer: “if you buy 10$ jeans, what are you really expecting about the working conditions of those who made them?” So will you still buy clothes after knowing the facts of the sweat factories?

I have been expecting a forum where people can share their views. But here the project has failed my expectation because first, the interaction sites are not embedded into the project, and audience need to go to external site to participate, which breaks the previously seamless journey;

screenshot from “shirt on your back”

Second, the “guardian witness” interaction site asks people to upload pictures where their clothes is from- but then what? Simply uploading pictures and place of production won’t give viewers further thoughts on sweat shops, unless they’re asked about it. While this project did ask — in another external site! And that website is an old journalism-fashioned article with a short video where a few interviewees are selected to answer this crucial question. This is hard to have any significant impact. And in fact, not too many people have been involved in both interactive sections. It would be much better if both interaction sections can be seamlessly combined together into the project.

Overall, the shirt on your back is an innovative documentary, although it needs a different set of logic to interact with the audience, not simply putting new content in the old journalistic framework.

Bowen Sun

About the author: Bowen Sun is currently studying M.A. in Digital and Interactive Storytelling Lab at University of Westminster. Determined to transform digital insights into tangible solutions. Welcome to find more about me through Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bowen-sun/