Unquiet Voices: UI/UX Design for Optimising Peripheral Participation
Unquiet Voices is a participatory documentary amplifying the voices of Romanian women who have survived domestic violence (Cheil Romania, 2019). The project exists in three formats: a 40-minute documentary shown in cinemas, an interactive museum exhibit featuring individual survivor stories on separate screens, and a website that features these same individual stories and encourages survivors to upload their own (2019; Zamfir, 2019a).
For the video component, contemporary audio recordings of Romanian survivors are paired with footage from American silent films that entered the public domain on 1 January 2019 (see figure 1). The short films depict situations similar to the events that the narrators describe, with the project’s trailer commenting that domestic abuse has been normalised in fictional media over a century (2019a; Cheil Romania, 2019).
The website features the stories of seven survivors, each of whom recorded a 4–8 minute narrative about the abuse they experienced. At the beginning of each story, a title card encourages any survivors watching the videos to pause if they hear something they relate to and upload their own audio. Users can submit a prepared file or record directly into the website (see figure 2). These viewer-contributed recordings become part of the project and can be viewed when the videos are paused (see figure 3).
While the focus is on sharing stories, the project also has a call-to-action encouraging viewers to support Romanian survivors through a small donation in the top-right corner (2019a). Through an SMS message, the viewer can donate €2 to INVICTA House, Romania’s only shelter for domestic violence victims.
The website’s value is primarily this user-generated content (UGC), as the documentary film including the seven original stories is available online for free (2019a). This is potentially a vulnerable situation for the project’s producers, as recruiting user participation is notoriously difficult, but through careful user-centred design and a thoughtful project plan, Zamfir and her team create an impactful and truly participatory web documentary (Cizek, Uricchio, and Rafsky, 2019, p4).
Katerina Cizek, one of the leading scholars on co-creation in non-fiction storytelling, describes the concept as a “collaboration with the intent to make quality media with partners instead of just about them…” (cited in Rose, 2018, p50). A greater interest in this work has been fuelled partially by ethnographers’ motivation to tell stories in a more complex and ethical manner and partially by the demands of sources themselves (Weight, 2013, p3; Cizek et al., 2019, p5). In the MIT Co-Creation Studio’s flagship report, Cizek et al. write, “[Would-be subjects] are critical of long-standing, extractive storytelling practices in documentary, journalism, and the arts, and are disinclined to perform their trauma or otherness for the narrow lens of an authoritative outsider” (2019, p6).
In the case of Unquiet Voices, in which the creators were looking to discuss a sensitive topic in the context of a country with a complicated media history, a co-creative approach created a digital community in which more women were willing to share their stories for the project.
Jenny Weight identifies three approaches to co-creation in online nonfiction, each with its own benefits and risks (2013). In “radical participation” projects, UGC is directly published to an online platform without editing or added context. In “edited participation” projects, creators often recruit sources offline and provide instructions on how to create content (Weight, 2013; Rose, 2018, p49). After sources submit their content, it is edited and woven together to create a single narrative.
While radical participation projects are the gold standard for transparency and authenticity, there is a steep cost: the loss of an “over-arching narrative, argument, perspective, or aesthetic” (Weight, 2013, p7).
“Peripheral participation” blends the two by recruiting UGC to be added to a project after the primary content is published (p8). When well executed, these projects can include unfiltered content from the impacted population, often a marginalised community, without losing the audience and recognition brought by a uniform voice in a traditional documentary.
Successful execution has two components: recruiting a representative group of contributors and fully-integrating the UGC into the original content. With regard to the former, media researchers have identified that there can be a “participation gap” caused by limited access to technology, poor understanding of participation rules and processes, and/or a lack of confidence in these processes (Cizek, Uricchio, and Rafsky, 2019, pp 4–5). The question of integration is equally important because without it, the radical participation part of these projects can feel disingenuous. Weight asserts that in many cases, the “promotional rhetoric” of peripheral participation projects addresses concerns about representation and power more than the practice of making these projects (2013, p10). When creators advertise their projects as highly-participatory and are praised for their inclusivity and commitment to changing a broken system, finding that UGC is just an extra thing thrown off to the side can seem like a bait-and-switch.
It is this challenge of balancing authenticity and a compelling narrative voice that Unquiet Voices seeks to solve with its blended format.
Unquiet Voices employs a personal and community-oriented strategy to encourage users to submit their own audio stories to the project. At the beginning of each of the documentary videos, the creators speak directly to survivors who may be exploring the content (see figure 4). This title card also provides a specific prompt for interested users to respond to. Someone may feel daunted if asked to speak about their trauma for 30 seconds, but by asking survivors to specifically record themselves if something they’ve experienced relates to the video, there is more clarity for potential contributors. This addresses the challenge identified by Mandy Rose that poor understanding of expectations can discourage participation (cited in Cizek, Uricchio, and Rafsky, 2019, p5).
When the viewer pauses the video, they see many user-submitted audio clips and the prompt to record their own (see figure 3). If a viewer paused with the intention of following the prompt, this allows them to hear example recordings that can guide them on format and increase their confidence. The examples are especially important because they demonstrate that user-submitted recordings don’t need to have rehearsed storytelling and perfect audio.
In one recording, a contributor named Maria shares that she’s been experiencing physical abuse for 10 years, but she’s afraid of turning her child’s life upside down if she leaves (2019a). There are more than 100 survivor stories like this on the site, and they provide a powerful and seemingly-unfiltered perspective that aligns with Weight’s commentary on radical participation projects (2013, pp5–6). These user contributions are not subtitled, which along with the database-like organisation of these clips aligns with Weight’s description of many radical participation projects. It “acts as a symbol of inclusivity for the participant community, [but] it may well exclude casual viewers” (p7).
Fortunately, these submissions are just one part of a larger project. Additionally, they are seamlessly woven into the primary narrative because users are prompted to submit audio related to the video they are currently watching. This ensures that the full benefits of radical participation are present without sacrificing a traditional documentary’s accessibility and wider appeal (p7).
The strategic location of the audio clips also makes it easier for them to serve as models for users who many be interested in uploading their own content. In particular, the UGC in Unquiet Voices emphasises that the creators are not asking for highly sophisticated and professional submissions. In Maria’s recording, the default iPhone text tone sounds halfway through, but that does not make her submission less worthy (Zamfir, 2019a). Since users can record directly into the website using their device’s browser and built-in microphone, the creators make it clear that they are focused on content, rather than production.
The design of the web platform and the UGC already available reinforce what is directly said by the creators, ensuring that users understand the participation rules and processes and are confident in them. Following Rose’s assertions, this should reduce the participation gap, and that seems to be true in this case (cited in Cizek, Uricchio, and Rafsky, 2019, p5). Though Romania’s population is less than a third of the United Kingdom’s at just under 20 million people, the creators have been able to recruit more than 100 submissions from people with a specific and traumatic shared experience (Eurostat, 2020; Zamfir, 2019a).
Though there are many challenges to creating robust participatory nonfiction projects on traumatic topics, Unquiet Voices is successful due to a carefully planned user experience and submission recruitment strategy. By employing what Weight calls the “peripheral participation” model, the creators are able to amplify the voices of many Romanian survivors of domestic violence while still maintaining a coherent argument as advocates (2003; Zamfir, 2019a). While many peripheral participation projects only allow for simple text comments or silo multimedia UGC away from the narrative, Unquiet Voices serves as a great example of how a website can be developed to truly integrate UGC into the primary narrative.
Additionally, the user-interface design employed by this project addresses several of the causes of the participation gap described by Rose, Cizek, Uricchio, and Rafsky (2019, pp4–5). While much has been written on the “digital divide” and technology access, Unquiet Voices uses a very personal call-to-action and its integrated UGC to ensure that potential contributors understand what the creators are looking for and feel empowered by the knowledge that their story is what’s important. This isn’t to say that the project ignores the technological side of the participation gap. By allowing users to record content directly into the site, contributors do not need to figure out the best way to record audio content on their computers and then save and upload compatible files. This is a prime example of user-centred design. The creators of Unquiet Voices developed a more robust website so that they could make user submissions as easy and accessible as possible.
By asking users to submit their stories in response to the pre-existing narrative content, Unquiet Voices presents an unflinching depiction of the reality that many Romanian survivors of domestic violence face in a country where serious family and romantic conflict is normalised and survivor resources are quite limited. As Weight describes it, a “community is formed and named,” yet the primary documentary narrative is still primed for advocacy work to go along with this community (2013, 6; Zamfir, 2019a). Creators interested in telling stories about similar social justice issues could learn a lot from the technical, narrative, and community-building approaches utilised in this project.
Cheil Romania. (2019). ANAIS — Unquiet Voices (campaign promo). Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE1hgPuHrGA [Accessed 20 January 2022].
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Zamfir, I. (2019). Unquiet Voices. [Participatory Web Documentary]. Available from https://unquietvoices.com/.