Let’s bring UX design to the news experience

I read a great post by Jared Spool this morning on ‘The curse of a mobile strategy’. The killer pull-out quote for me is this one:

The problem with a mobile strategy is it’s about the medium of delivery, not what is being delivered. It focuses on the technology questions. Do we build a native app or a web-based solution? It doesn’t ask, what’s the best experience for the customer?

I’ve noticed a tendency in news organisations I’ve worked with to focus on technology – the new platform, new storytelling device, new bells and whistles – without ever really rethinking the underlying proposition of what works best for readers.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of thinking along these lines:

  • We should do an app, everyone’s got apps these days.
  • Why don’t we look like the Guardian? We should look more like the Guardian.
  • We need to do more video, it’s getting clicks and we can sell ads into it.
  • Data journalism’s a thing, let’s do some.
  • Love that New York Times Snow Fall thing, let’s do more stuff like that!
  • Wow, Serial. Let’s do stuff like that!
  • Lists are working great for Buzzfeed. Let’s do lists!
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile, we need to do more mobile!

Which is fine, as far as it goes, and some of those things are going to prove useful to the business and to readers (I like – and have said – some of that stuff too).

But it’s really a variation on the “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it online too!” of the 90s and “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it in an app too!” of the early 2000s.

The question/s that tend to be asked are: where/how else can we publish our content to better suit our readers? And that’s cool.

But what I’ve never heard in a newsroom or boardroom is anyone asking the more fundamental question:

How can we make a great experience for our readers?

Or the follow-up questions:

What do people want to know? What do they want to understand? (Which is a very different question to ‘what do people want to read?’)

What’s missing? What are readers looking for and not finding? What are those things people know they’re hankering for but can’t quite describe?

What’s getting in people’s way? What’s making it hard for people to find the stuff they want to read? What’s turning people off?

What do people want to do with the things they’re reading, the information they’re finding? What do they do with them?

If, at any one time, reader x is in a queue at the Post Office swiping through his phone, and reader y is hopping between news sites and Facebook and email in her office, and reader z is having an idle iPad moment in his tractor, and reader b is having lunch in his hair salon and has just picked up his phone to see what’s changed since two hours ago, and reader c is having a serious news catch-up at home before returning to writing her thesis, then how do we create experiences that work for each of them?

These kinds of questions feel important to me.

They’re partly about navigation and platform and functionality and storytelling devices:

If I don’t want to read about crime or court or celebrities or tragedies, how well does the news homepage serve me? Can I subscribe to an email of daily news that excludes these categories? How long will it take me to set up? To change? Can I set it up on my phone while I’m in the queue at the Post Office?

Can I subscribe to Government news but not political news (i.e. not the stories about what he said about the thing she said about the thing that may or may not happen in 2020)?

I was in meetings all day, have you got a 3-minute summary of what happened that I can read? Actually, scratch that, I’m too tired to read, can you give it to me in a video?

My internet connection’s gone batshit slow and I can’t watch the video. Got a transcript?

But they’re also about the substance of the stories themselves:

If I want to understand what the Government’s doing, am I going to be best served by over-worked gallery journalists firing off quick questions to politicians while they’re walking into the Debating Chamber, then writing up the quick answers?

If I want to understand social housing in New Zealand (in the wake of the Government’s announced social housing programme), how much will reading a couple of news stories help me? Is there another way you can help me?

If I want to understand child poverty, which is an ongoing issue much discussed in New Zealand, will reading news stories only when a report has been released or a politician has delivered a stump speech help me? Is there a way you can walk me through the complexity of the issues over time? Can I easily find what you’ve published using your on-site search engine? Are your videos and timelines and slideshows and stories titled and marked up and written in a way that will make sense to someone reading them a week later? A year later?

It seems to me that UX designers would be really helpful in news product and story development – to help frame these questions and figure out how to test and design around them, within the inherent constraints and challenges.

Certainly I’d be interested in working up a little news project with a couple of UX designers if there’s anyone around who’d like to spend some time thinking about news? If so, hit me up!

Meantime, check out Mr Spool’s piece. He makes a lot of great points and it’s well worth a read.

Also, Min Ming Lo has a pretty accessible outline of what various kinds of designers do (UX, UI, Research, Motion, Visual etc).

 This post is also on Medium.