Interactive documentaries, also known as webdocs and i-Docs, are an innovative digital media artform that has arisen from the cross-section of documentary films and interactive digital narratives (IDNs). However, interactivity is one of the most used, yet least understood terms in the digital media industry. Researchers have proposed frameworks of digital stories to define interactivity as tools to strengthen this relationship between user and system. However, these frameworks do not identify the specific forms of interactivity and how each assists in the co-creation of an experience by the user and the system.

This thesis aims to identify how specific forms of interactivity assist in a user’s sense-making processes during an interactive documentary experience. This exploration is driven by the following research questions: 1) How do users access forms of interactivity to construct their own understanding of an interactive documentary? 2) How do users incorporate that understanding into new knowledge and wisdom?

I will conduct a study in which at least thirty participants will first engage with the award-winning interactive documentary Bear 71. Participants will interact with Bear 71 for at least twenty minutes, during which I will ask them to “think aloud” and to explain the rationale behind their actions and thought processes. Then, the participants will be asked to complete a User Experience Questionnaire and System Usability Scale survey. A UEQ consists of a series of pairs of words that may apply to the documentary, like attractive and unattractive, and the participants fill in the circle they agree fits the documentary’s description best. An example of a SUS requires the participant to rate on a scale from one to five how much they either agree or disagree with a statement. An example of a SUS statement is: I think I would use this system frequently.  

Finally, semi-structured interviews will be conducted with each user to discuss how their actions and motivations affected their perceptions and cognitive processes. For example, one question might be: What do you believe your role in the experience might have been, and what physical actions did you take that made you come to that conclusion?

After the study, all qualitative data will be coded to explore commonalities and differences among participants’ use of interactivity as a sense-making tool and the affect it had on their understanding of that experience. The data will be coded and analyzed to find trends and significance, using game designer Eric Zimmerman’s four forms of interactivity and experience designer Nathan Shedroff’s sense-making framework as a foundation for the data coding schema. Mapping users’ cognitive processes as they encounter different forms of interactivity may additionally help to understand ways in which interactions extend a user’s sense-making tools in a digital storytelling environment.

This study will add to the growing body of research of Bear 71 as one of the most heavily researched interactive documentaries. Interactive documentary researcher Kate Nash’s previous research of Bear 71 identified several sense-making strategies users created to contextualize their experience. To expand on her research, this study aims to correlate these sense-making strategies with modes of interactivity to better understand how specific forms of interactivity assists with the sense-making processes.

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