User experience image
Credit: By mollystevens on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Discussions at recent news industry conferences have often referred to the importance of good user experience, particularly during discussions about how news outlets are reaching and interacting with their users on digital platforms.

References to user experience could cover a range of aspects, including the user's journey through content, an app or a news website, the usability of those products and the experience of consuming a single piece of content.

For the purposes of this feature I asked managing editor of the Wall Street Journal's digital network, Raju Narisetti, what user experience meant to him in the context of news and journalism.

He said: "At its simplest, it is meeting and hopefully exceeding the expectations of what brought audiences to our journalism and our brand in the first place."

At its simplest, it is meeting and hopefully exceeding the expectations of what brought audiences to our journalism and our brand in the first placeRaju Narisetti, Wall Street Journal
"In WSJ's case, it is offering intelligent, useful, informative and entertaining news and analysis for those who largely have the prism of business to their news needs, extending that to the business of their life with our rich features content. And offering that in an intuitive way that respects their time, the one commodity that is non-renewable and for which we are all competing for all the time."

Martin Belam, who was previously UX lead at the Guardian and is now principal consultant for digital consultancy Emblem, added that he approaches user experience by looking "at the whole experience of a service".

"Not just what did it look like, but how did it behave, was it easy to use, was information easy to find, did the service load quickly and respond quickly when I touched buttons or clicked links".

He added that "good design should be invisible".

"We can all describe a bad user experience, because we can list the things wrong with it. It is harder to define a good user experience, but one of the best descriptions of what to aim for is one of the oldest ones, from NNG [Nielsen Norman Group]: 'The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother'."
  • The starting point: Audience research
In the early stages of assessing user experience, the focus is on the user, and understanding their behaviours and desires. "Everything has to start with the user," Belam said, and effective research can give you a good starting base from which to make informed decisions.

"What problem are you trying to solve for the user? What are you doing to help them? It isn't just about publishing lots of web pages and hoping people will come," Belam added.

"I think this is especially true in the B2B sphere, where you should have a laser focus on providing people the news and information they need to do their jobs."

Narisetti added that the information from which to make decisions on content delivery includes "what our audiences do with it (existing user behaviour and metrics) and what they tell us (surveys and A/B testing) they would like to do with it".

For a recent podcast on this very topic I spoke to Max Gadney, founder and design director of data experience design company After the Flood. He was also previously at the BBC where his roles included head of design for the BBC News website from 2000 to 2007.

He outlined the different forms research in this area could take, and how they may be of use.

"First of all should be your analytics", he said, to "give you a picture of where the activity is". But he added this "will show you what and when and possibly even who, but it won't tell you why".

"You can get some very interesting patterns of what, when you track from what sort of stories people go on from and the kind of patterns of use within a site, but they won't ever become any more than that. And I think you need to then find more qualitative data."

He recommends interviews for creating "a conversation around the interface that you have and also around those of your competitors".

"Never ask them what they want, because people don't generally know what they want, you want to understand the context of using what they find valuable."
  • Moving on to content: Avoid 'information-overload'
A key piece of advice shared by a number of those interviewed for this feature, was to keep a handle on the amount of information the audience is being confronted with.

Much of the advice was for digital news outlets to look to print for some inspiration on keeping things uncluttered.

A lot of news sites are crammed full of links and distractions, that make reading the content less pleasurable for the audience, and add noise and information-overload to the pageMartin Belam, Emblem
"If you think for a second about the way we lay out newspapers and magazines, we tease some of the content at the front, and then we let it speak for itself," Belam said.

"You don't clutter page seven with reminders of what was on pages one, two, three, the last thing this journalist wrote about, and trails for 10 other articles on a similar theme.

"A lot of news sites are crammed full of links and distractions, that make reading the content less pleasurable for the audience, and add noise and information-overload to the page." recently produced a podcast on user experience and news site design, which also touched on this issue. Jacek Utko, design director at Bonnier Business Press, for example, said that news websites are looking more and more like they are adopting some of the "the good heritage of print design" and also highlighted the importance of giving a clear news hierarchy.

One example cited by Utko, and also referenced by one of the founders of RGB Media, Grig Davidovitz, in an interview with earlier in the year, was the Huffington Post and the way it will boldly present stories with a large single image on the homepage in some cases.

This was something which one of the founders of RGB Media, Grig Davidovitz, discussed with earlier in the year, when he spoke about the importance of "low information density" to instead communicate the drama level of a story.

And Gadney also highlighted the danger of "trying to do everything" as a potential pitfall.

"People sort of think that's the internet, you just put a bit more over on that side or below it, but I think if people don't really know what the thing is, they'll be less likely to engage with it and that's a sort of general branding and marketing thing."
  • Interactivity: Offer a rewarding and shareable experience
As Narisetti points out "interactivity is just one aspect of a good experience and not necessarily either the only aspect or a pre-condition to good experiences".

But where content is made interactive, there are a number of factors which can help contribute to making it a better experience.

They are "those that are integral to a story but can also stand alone; those that don't require a cheat-sheet on how to use it and allow readers to go down many rabbit holes dictated by their interest than by how the graphic was built; those that are immediately shareable and those that can loop the reader engagement back into data for the next user," he added.

But interactivity need not be complex, and content need not be interactive to be considered a 'good experience'.

"Sometimes a good experience is just getting a market-moving piece of news to our audiences first (a la Dow Jones newswires) or a fast-paced scroll of headlines ('latest headlines' module on top of our homepage) and other times it is a deeply entertaining offering (our simulated Olympics videos) or a database to dive deep into (our 'political moneyball' database), beyond your normal words and images."

Gadney added that he feels news outlets need to think more about why they are building visualisations or interactives, to ensure they have "the users in mind".

He cited video as having the potential of being "the new thing" when it comes to online business, as well as "smaller, more focused, interactives", citing the BBC's seven billion population interactive which was the most shared, commented and 'liked' Facebook news articles of 2011.

"What it does is provide you with a hook into the story and also importantly provides an asset, a social media link, which is the unique URL of your place within that data for you to then share on Twitter or Facebook to say 'hey look at me'.

"Because like it or not that 'hey look at me in the data, look at me compared to the rest of the UK', is a big thing."
  • Accessibility of content: Offer explainers along the way
News outlets should be careful not to assume the audience has prior knowledge on a topic or particular story, Gadney advised, as this can affect how accessible content is.

He suggested looking to the tabloid press as an example of explaining stories clearly. For news outlets targeting a wide range of demographics, he advised ensuring a mix of both "the simple background" and more in-depth analysis.
  • Usability: Building clear and uninterrupted journeys
As well as making the content itself accessible to a reader, navigating your way through the material available on a digital platform should also be clear, and find the balance between not overloading the reader with paths and at the same time offering a collection of related content which explains each of a story's "facets".

Belam advises news outlets not to "go crazy with adverts or pop-ups" and also to "think about what you are trying to get someone to do next".

"So often on news sites when you hit an article page the user is asked to consent to the use of cookies, share the article, tweet the article, comment on the article, vote some comments on the article up or down or reply to them, read some related articles, look at some photo galleries, and pay attention to adverts. Try to narrow that focus down."

The next generation is about showing the different modes, the analysis, alongside the background, alongside the picture. Not sort of hidden behind the main story that you're on because on the web it's often a bit difficult to find 'where shall I go next after reading this one story?'Max Gadney, After the Flood
But Gadney also recommends offering some "multi-modality", which represents to the audience the "different facets of a story", such as he recalls experiencing in the presentation of news in broadsheet newspapers last year, when they covered some of the big news stories of 2011 such as the Arab Spring.

"The presentation of the journalism was such that you could look at the actual story and the updates and then very near to that, on the same spread, in the same perceptual intake in your peripheral vision, was some analysis, some colour, some photos, possibly graphics and quotes from the ground."

He added that "where next for interfaces and user experience, is certainly providing that multi-modality" and "the ability to see the different facets of a story".

"The next generation is about showing the different modes, the analysis, alongside the background, alongside the picture. Not sort of hidden behind the main story that you're on because on the web it's often a bit difficult to find 'where shall I go next after reading this one story?'"
  • The real experience: Embracing the liveness of news
Gadney also called on media outlets to "make more of the liveness" of news. He said there is a "danger that news presentation gets too slick".

"There is an expectation of liveness from the audience and I think people understand why some things are possible and some things aren't possible."

He added: "Audience expectations, or the big way people know how the world is now, it's so complex and moving and shifting, that editorial values that echo that acknowledgement of flux and subjectivity, while striving for facts ... would have a very interesting impact on what these things look like as living, breathing reflections of our world."
  • Uniqueness: Make the experience one-of-a-kind
Part of the experience which will help maintain returning audiences is one which is not available elsewhere. As Narisetti said, using the example the Olympics - a story covered internationally - "what is important is that the experience of consuming the Olympics is different and engaging so that, given a choice of going anywhere, our audience comes back for more to or our newspaper or our apps".

In this example, the WSJ audience needs to be "better informed, entertained and educated by our coverage and our presentation of an event".

"It has to begin with the simple question - how do we want our audiences to experience our journalism? Then it is less about just having unique content, since that is not always a given, but more about what can we do with what we have to make the experience of consuming it unique."
  • Distinctiveness: Have a clear voice and offering
Being clear about what experience you are offering, whether that is the way you are presenting content or the content itself, is also key, Gadney said.

He used the example of the ITV News recent site relaunch, which is presented as a stream of updates on the latest headlines.

"They stuck to this single metaphor, news is live, news is now. I think it's a stronger product for that," Gadney added.

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