The Seattle Times, like many other newspapers, is facing the loss of readers with its print paper and is focusing more and more on the its website and mobile app. The challenge for the Seattle Times with its digital platforms is how to engage the younger readers of today as well as how to get the older audiences to switch from print to digital.
Challenge statement: How might we help The Seattle Times communicate the value of local news to the digital generation?
Team members: Anmol Anubhai, Sarah Outhwaite
Timeframe: March 2018 - August 2018
Methods: Cultural Probes, Semi-Structured interviews, Paper-Prototypes, User Research, Affinity Diagramming, Structured Brainstorming, Usability Testing…
Tools: Illustrator, Sketch, InDesign, Keynote, Google Docs
Timeline: March 2018 - August 2018
Project roles: User Researcher, Interaction Designer
Led 1 expert interviews
Led 5 interviews with Seattle Times Staff and readers
Led a Design Workshop with Seattle Times journalists and employees
Competitive Analysis of 3 competitors
Theme and Insight development
Prototype creation in Sketch
Created the final specification document for the team
Poster Creation for presentation
Sketch mockup and Design Guide creation
Final Presentation to the Seattle Public
Our team’s solution for our design challenge is a mobile application called nPact. We did a lot of research and we found that people are often overwhelmed with the amount of news stories that are out there, and in today’s environment our attention spans are short, and we are easily distracted. However, people still want consume news, especially about the community around them. Thus, the goal of our app is to provide readers with different ways of to encourage the consumption of local news including curated news stories based on reader interest, providing readers a set amount of stories each day to reduce overload, and letting readers either read short summaries or full articles.
Our target audience for nPact are millennials aged 22-35. The reason we chose millennials is because they are now in the workforce and becoming daily news consumers. Hence, to continue having a constant readership, the Seattle Times must target this new generation of news consumers.
How nPact works:
nPact works in the following ways:
Users/readers download and install the app.
Readers then choose the news categories they are interested in.
nPact then uses an algorithm to provide personalized news stories for readers based on their selected interests.
Readers are given a set number of stories per day. The number can be changed by readers.
nPact use a fuzzy algorithm to select some stories outside of the reader’s interest to avoid them pigeonholing themselves.
As the reader uses the app, the algorithm improves its metrics for personalization and readers receive a variety of stories to broaden their viewpoint.
The process of answering our “how might we” statement mentioned earlier, began with conducting user research via secondary and primary research methods. The secondary research methods we used were to read academic and professional articles on the current state of news media. We also did a competitive analysis to understand what current news outlets are doing to reach out to readers via various digital platforms.
From our secondary research we found common things already known as well as things we didn’t know. For instance, through our research via academic articles as well as well as other various media resources, the common finding we had was that print media has a falling readership, and in many instances is on its way out. More people are reading online nowadays, and a lot of traditional news outlets are either converting to digital or going out of business.
As for our competitive analysis, our team found that a lot of news products now contain paywalls, curation and customization for readers. A surprising discovery that we made was that people wanted more news about their local area. The different aspects of the news products mentioned before we discovered are a reaction to the number of people now reading online and the loss of revenue from print media. Due to how many people are now reading news online, news outlets are now charging their online readers to get revenue, but in return they provide curation and customization at various levels.
One of the first primary research activities that our team did was interview several experts in the news industry. Each team member reached out to someone in the industry, prepped an interview guide, and then led the interview of the person they reached out to. After each interview we transcribed the notes so that we could code our findings later and produce an affinity diagram.
Most of the people we interviewed are currently working at major publications. One person is a professor at the University of Washington Professor. From each person we learned about the current practices of the major news outlets and local news outlets and how all of them are writing and producing news for the digital products of each news outlet.
A lot of the findings from the expert interviews matched our findings from our secondary research where companies are now putting up paywalls and providing curation.
Interviews with Journalist
In addition to interviews with the experts in other news outlets, we interviewed journalist and employees at the Seattle Times to understand their own opinions about the industry, their readers, and the paper they work for.
Findings from the interviews with journalist include the fact that journalist aren’t sure of what readers think of the Seattle Times and there is a strong desire for a better feedback loop between readers and writers. Journalist want to know if the stories they’re writing are striking a note with their audience or if people want something different. At the moment, one of the only metrics they use is the number of people that have viewed a story, which does not tell the story of why people like one story over the other.
One research method that I found unique that we used is called a Cultural Probe. The overall goal of a cultural probe is to understand what people do versus what they say. For my team, we wanted to understand what our target audience’s news habits really are versus what they say their habits are.
Culture probes usually contain a set of activities that are given to the research participants in a nice box or container. Over the course of about a week, the participants do the activities when they have time and save the items they produce or in some cases, send texts or photos to the research participants. It all really depends on the activities done.
For our probes, we laser cut paper boxes, folded them together, and then came up with 5 activities for each person to do. The participants consisted of our friends and their news habits ranged from being active news seekers to casual news seekers.
When it came time to collect the probes, our team did debrief interviews with our participants to understand some of the reasons for the decisions they made, and how they interpreted some of the activities.
We gathered a lot of valuable insight into how our participants view news sources and how they view reading the news in general.
Workshop with Journalist
After the cultural probes were done, we organized a workshop with the journalist. The goal was to get the interpretations of the journalist on how the cultural probe participants responded to the activities that the participants had finished.
We set aside an hour with the journalist and employees with the Seattle Times. During the workshop, we had the journalist and employees go through an activity where they wrote down on sticky notes the known knowns, the known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. From there we had each journalist look at the cultural probes we handed them and jot down their thoughts on sticky notes. After a set amount of time, we had a discussed what they found and they’re reactions to what they found. From there we had the journalist and employees write down on sticky notes what they thought should change at the Seattle Times and what shouldn’t change.
The findings from this activity emphasized the need for some type of feedback loop between journalist and readers. This is especially true since some of the reactions by the Seattle Times staff to the cultural probe activity results were negative when the original intent of the participant was something positive.
Synthesizing Our Research
Once all our research activities were finished, we did an affinity diagramming activity. We coded the notes for the interview transcriptions we had done, wrote important notes down on stickies and stuck them all up on black boards. We did the same for our workshop, and cultural probes and ended up with a wealth of data. From there we divided up the notes into themes and then developed insights.
After synthesizing our research, we had a number of insights that we narrowed down to 6 primary insights:
Journalists don’t know how to define metrics for reader engagement - and readers don’t know how to define what they find engaging either. Nobody knows what a “successful news outcome” is.
Short, fast digital news formats create challenges for readers trying to remember interesting series/stories, which becomes an impediment to building relationships with a news source
The value of local news is unclear to readers unless they have a way to act upon it
Young Seattleites desire to see news from others’ perspectives as a way to counterbalance for their own bias, and the bias of news sources
The Times thinks about representing local populations but has no systematic methods
Reporters have experience getting detailed information about people and environments through sources, but these skills are not put to use understanding readership.
We developed 6 design principles for guiding our prototype creation based off of our insights:
Bridging gaps - Help Journalist present news value in a way that the reader understands it
Individuality - Leave room for individuality, respect individual values
Privacy - Respect reader’s privacy
Resources - Be mindful of independent newspaper limitations
Professional Value - Support professional local news
Influence - Show the influence of news on local populations
Based on all our research, our design principles, and insights, we saw 2 opportunity areas that we wanted to target:
Reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed - Participants feel overwhelmed because of having to choose from multiple news sources and then multiple articles
Show how local news is valuable - Participants seek local news that holds significance in their lives
After we synthesized all our data we collected from journalists, professionals, and research participants, we further divided up our target audience into three groups. To help us remember the different aspects of each group, we created persona slides. The slides can be seen below.
Ideation and Down-selection
After all the research was finished, we began the prototyping process. To begin we ideated and sketched out potential ideas. Once we were done, we had 100 ideas that we then posted up on our blackboards. From there, we had the class vote for the ideas that they thought were the most desirable, feasible, and viable. Our team took the ideas that had the most votes and then discussed them before settling on 5 of them. The five ideas are below:
User Testing and Final Selection
After our team chose 5 ideas, we made paper prototypes for each of them and then tested them with our friends and family to gather feedback on what they thought was the best idea. During the testing we learned that our friends and family liked aspects of several of our prototypes. For this reason, we decided to take a couple features from three of the ideas and combine them to create a prototype we ended up calling nPact.
Once user testing was done, my team and I set about creating the user flows for our mobile application that we were designing. We several iterations of flows, but we eventually settled on showing 3 main flows for our application:
Viewing an article
Favoriting and viewing the favorites page
The user flow to the right shows the complete flows for our application.
Once the user flows were decided, I began to work on creating the initial medium fidelity wireframes in Sketch. Some examples can be seen below.
After our initial wires were made, we had a critique session with our class where feedback was given to us. Based off that feedback, we made changes to our wires and turned them into visual comps.
Visual Comps and Specification Document
The final prototype took us about a month to create, get feedback, and then implement some of the feedback we thought was warranted. I was responsible for mocking up the UI in sketch as well as creating our final specification document.
This project was probably one of the most rewarding and one of the most difficult projects for me. It was rewarding in the sense I was helping a news organization that’s been around since I was young figure out a way to engage younger readers.
The difficult part of this project was the team dynamic. Since the project was about 6 months in total, and there were only 3 of us, there ended up being a lot of internal conflict on our team. The best way to resolve the internal conflict I learned is to make sure to communicate with your teammates. Communication about how each person is feeling, feedback on what can be improved, and expressing your viewpoints and reasoning for those viewpoints. That way, you can all figure out a way to resolve the internal conflict and get back to the important work of creating the best product for your customers and end users.