The Mouse, The Track Pad, And “Scrolly-telling”

The first mouse was developed by Researchers Douglas Engelbart and Bill English at Stanford University.

Before we jump in, let’s take a step back and think about how our devices are designed, starting with one of the most integral parts of digital navigation—the mouse.

You don’t necessarily need a mouse to use a computer, but most people use a mouse, or some iteration of it (whether that be a track pad, or scroll ball, or any pointing device). A mouse is designed to expedite navigation, and intuitively translate the user’s intention into movements on the screen.

I became quite aware of this after hours of scrolling through digital layouts, looking for a peg to this research. I noticed my fingers were getting sore. I found myself cracking my knuckles, gearing up for the next immersive, visual storytelling experience I was about to dive into.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if me tirelessly scrolling was really interactive, or some pseudo-interactive attempt to engage an audience. Do all these webpages with gorgeous photos, wonderful graphics and great reporting engage people, or does it just tire them out?

To understand this, I took a step back and read about the origins of the mouse. Two guys, Douglas Engelbart and Bill English, were researchers at Stanford trying to figure out a way people could interact with the information on computer screens most efficiently. English had developed this new tool, the mouse, and so they went to NASA to test it. They put the mouse up against a light pen and joysticks, and the mouse was the easiest and least tiring tool of the group.

But oddly, the English and Engelbart developed a knee-controlled navigation system based on how good people are at controlling car pedals with their feet, and found that that system actually performed slightly better than the mouse. Can you imagine, all of us controlling our computers with our knees?

But the mouse, being more portable and adaptable, inevitably won. And with it came all the different versions of the mouse, which have become such an essential part of our computer experience now that it\’s hard to imagine it any other way.

That mouse was designed to be efficient at moving things around a screen. And it really is great at it. But a lot of mouses are built with features designed to give user control over scroll speed and distance, like the tactile feedback from the scroll wheel, and for the trackpad, only being a couple square inches.

The first mouses didn’t even have scroll wheels, the used had to click on a scrollbar on the computer screen. And if a user wants to scroll quickly with a track pad or touch screen, there\’s a flicking mechanism that allowed them to quickly move through a page (but not really see all the parts of it).

Touch screen devices have the same sort of flicking function, but could be equally as tiring for the user.

In recent months, we’ve seen countless publications post long, immersive stories. From NPR’s Changing Mongolia, the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 or even NYT’s 2013 story Russia Left Behind, excellent reporting has been put into these new platforms. And these platforms require the reader to scroll a whole lot more than the mouse was designed to.

I talked with my peers about these stories, many of whom had some trouble committing time to reading them, and began to think about how engaging they really are.

I developed a series of questions from these conversations and thoughts.

  1. Are our devices designed for this type of storytelling?
  2. How many people like reading these pages?
  3. Is there research that backs up these methods?
  4. If there research, is it worth the energy people put into making them?

As phones, tablets and other touch screen devices grow in users, the mouse has become less essential in computer navigation. But whether the need for an external pointing device will endure remains to be seen.

I hope to, in this research, look critically at new tools that are aesthetically intriguing and initially exciting at first glance, and have the same rigor in designing a story as there is in the reporting behind it. As we create innovative journalism, and strive to tell more engaging stories, understanding the technology we use to tell them will lead to more fair and accessible journalism.

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