“Sit back, relax and enjoy the show,” goes the old movie trailer maxim. But, like learning professionals, creators of visual media have long struggled to eliminate the passivity of the viewing experience. Sitting back can lead to disinterest, distraction and a desire for something more immersive. To combat this, we’ve seen a history of 3D, Imax, surround sound and other attempts to engage and involve the viewer in what’s displaying on-screen. In 1977, the QUBE interactive cable TV system offered subscribers, “a chance to shout back at the world” through a push-button remote control. The “ability to interact with what is happening on the screen is why QUBE marks the beginning of the era of participatory as opposed to passive television,” claimed the short-lived operation.

The challenge for producers of visual media has become more pronounced recently with the emergence of mobile games, ubiquitous broadband and 4G, social media, and on-demand user experiences. People expect to be in control and to touch screens. They want to view media anywhere and on any device, to “lean forward” and participate, to engage with (or create) the story and decide what comes next.

Enter interactive video. For the sake of simplicity, we can define interactive video as an online visual experience that permits the user to click or touch the image to trigger an action. That action can be loading a pop-up screen, opening a web page, or, more interestingly for visual storytellers, causing the video to jump to a predefined spot, or to immediately and seamlessly start playing a new video.

Interactive video can allow viewers to control “what to do next,” and watch the characters in the video respond to their decisions. This permits branching, playing out consequences of making choices, jumping to what interests you, and watching events unfold through the eyes of different characters. It puts you in the middle of the action and engages you to drive the experience.

Interactive video has several different uses. It is used extensively in online promotional/marketing (trailers for upcoming TV series and movies are popular). Recruiters and customer service providers have been quick to exploit the medium. Some of the most creative and innovative uses have been in music videos and the visual arts. The opportunities to create engaging learning experiences are starting to be realized by training content providers and L&D organizations.

There are four primary benefits to interactive video that make it very attractive to those of in learning and development (L&D).

1. Cross-device

With a few limitations, interactive video works well on most modern browsers and any device: PC, phone or tablet. And, if you follow a few basic guidelines, the same video(s) can provide a consistent, powerful experience regardless of whether the learner is in front of a laptop in the office, or viewing a mobile device (with ear buds) on the bus. This makes the production process easier for you. You don’t need to worry about multiple versions or tweaking for different operating systems. Cell signals and Wi-Fi are generally strong enough nowadays to support full-screen mobile video (most interactive video platforms still actually push media clips and commands to the user, instead of using real-time streaming media servers). And your learners will relish the freedom.

2. Personalized

Interactive video permits user-driven decision-making and a sense of user control. This can enable a more personalized learning experience and greater choice for the learner. Videos can be structured to permit learners to select based on their role, staff level or knowledge gaps. According to the Brandon Hall Group, video learning is one of the top five critical items for effective personalized learning. In true self-directed fashion, viewers of interactive video can choose how deep they want to go with the content: stick to the main message or peruse side topics.

3. Engaging

Interactive video is immersive and can involve the learner in the content. Our busy learners are fickle, and will bail on your learning if it feels slow, uninteresting or passive. Industry statistics verify that interactive video experiences reduce user drop-off when compared to regular “flat” video. Story-driven approaches encourage exploration: branching, learning more in “layers” of content, or collecting knowledge items that are interspersed across the entirety of the journey. If done properly and effectively, you can get the best of both worlds – engaging characters and narrative, with opportunities to embed high-touch experiential learning through decision-based consequences and outputs.

4. Fast and Flexible

Out of all our learning modalities, video is very versatile. Video can stand on its own online as a microlearning asset. You can embed it in a classroom experience or a broader digital learning course.  Your videos can serve as mini-simulations, or performance support aids. You’ll also find that most of the interactive video platforms provide cloud-based authoring tools that are user-friendly and require short ramp-up times. Interactive videos can be elaborate, but they don’t need to be. Armed with a camera (or camera phone), basic video editing software, some hotspot icons and a decent design, you can DIY an interactive video in an afternoon.

The benefits to training professionals extend beyond these four. Some platforms support social features (such as sharing, commenting or rating) that provide a secondary, user-generated knowledge channel for learners. Most platforms generate robust, real-time viewer analytics that can provide fascinating insights and metrics into your learners’ behaviors and choices. A core benefit for marketers is conversion: to use interactive video to entice viewers to take an additional action (sign up, read more, purchase). Training professionals can use a similar technique to encourage learners to continue their learning experience beyond the video (through downloads, follow-up activities, targeted recommendations, etc.).

Given all these advantages, is interactive video the answer to all your training needs? Not exactly.  Depending on your organization and approach, there may be important budget and access considerations to consider. For instance, does your organization cover mobile data package costs? Video files can be very big, and many interactive video platforms use a method that pushes video files to the viewing device, instead of streaming it. “Choose your own path” videos can be very engaging, but they can require you to produce three or more times as much edited video as a traditional linear format. For these reasons and more, the format lends itself well to shorter experiences that contain very visual content, clear characters and well-defined choice/consequence situations. It’s especially effective for hybrid learning/messaging campaigns: recruiting trailers and new hire “organizational culture” pieces; externally-facing products and services overviews; or, strategy announcements and mindset shifting around change initiatives.

If you determine that interactive video meets your training needs, there are some typical traps to avoid:

  • Resist format temptation. Stay on track with your main message and avoid unnecessary tangents and distractions. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
  • Keep it brief. Today’s viewers welcome brevity. Going longer means more production for you, and higher attrition rates. Even interactive video faces rising viewer drop-off over time.
  • Think small. Remember that your video (and hotspots) should play nicely on a small screen for people with big fingers.

The historical divisions between “watch” and “do,” messaging and learning, and formal and informal training have broken down. Passive is out, experiential and participatory are in. Interactive video represents an exciting, evolving new format that can connect directly with learners on an emotional level, and engage them in their own growth and development.