On the day of the US presidential inauguration, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab wanted to give people the option to easily follow what was happening both on and off stage, as they witnessed the swearing-in ceremony of the 45th president of the United States.
The Lab's team developed Shifting Lenses, a feature designed with mobile users in mind, that allowed readers to swipe left and right on a story to shift the perspective and get an idea of what was happening on the podium during the ceremony and on the ground without having to go somewhere else.
The feature was available through the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab iOS app, and it was a proof of concept idea that came out of the Lab's user research and prototyping conducted last year, which involved looking at how live coverage formats could be tweaked to become more mobile-friendly or even mobile-first.
"The 'lenses' are subtopics within a set of live coverage or within an event or a topic," Sasha Koren, editor of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, told Journalism.co.uk.
"For the inauguration, the subtopics were what was happening officially and what was happening on the ground in Washington. It ended up being what we called 'on podium' and 'off podium', so off podium was mostly what was happening around the protests, with a little bit of what was happening within the audience at the inauguration itself."
For the most part, the feature was automated, based on the inauguration live blog ran by the Guardian. The team's work revolved around assigning each post a different lens, and the updates were a mix of images, social media posts and paragraphs of text with observations from different reporters.
While the Lab's previous initiatives have been carried through the Guardian's main news app or through readers' Chrome browsers on their mobiles, Shifting Lenses was available through the Lab's new iOS app, which also hosted the team's first experiment with live video in a push notification that same day.
Those who downloaded the app and turned on notifications received a push alert that contained a live video feed of the ceremony from Reuters (to which the Guardian has a subscription), that they were able to watch inside the notification itself.
If they tapped to expand it, the notification would also show a couple of lines of text with bullet points that provided more information about what was happening in the video, such as who was standing up to speak next. The expanded view also included two action buttons, one which gave people the option to click through to the live blog on the Guardian website, and one to stop receiving the notification.
Because the aim was to direct people to the live stream once the notification landed on their lock screens, the Lab used the additional line of text available under the alert's title to "give people direction as to how to use the video", explained Madeline Welsh, the Lab's associate editor.
"This isn't something we've done previously. Usually the motto we have is 'use all the space for the content' but for this, we said 'you either press to expand or slide to view' once we started receiving early feedback from users saying 'hey it works differently on my phone', so we adapted our copy for that."
The notification on people's smartphone screens would also refresh, with the team updating the text if someone important was coming up to speak next or if the video feed was switching to a view of the protests around the city, for example. "That would give people incentive to either open it again or open it for the first time or pass until something they wanted to see came up," Koren said.
The Lab promoted the live video notification experiment ahead of the ceremony on Twitter and on the Guardian website, but since it required people downloading an additional app as opposed to opting to receive it through an existing one, the number of participants was much smaller compared to previous experiments.
However, Koren pointed out it gave the team more flexibility to experiment with different types of notifications without having to work with the Guardian app teams in the UK. "Having an app really gives us the flexibility to do things in a much quicker way. The challenge is that we are less assured of a big audience."
Some 620 people used the live video notification, Welsh said, with an average watch time of about three minutes per user, which "holds a little bit with the conventional wisdom about how long people will watch video on the internet for". One of the two alerts about the protests became one of the most expanded notifications the Lab sent that day, with one third of users choosing to expand it.
"The other ones were more towards the beginning of the ceremony, we sent out a couple of notifications saying former presidents had arrived, or the president elect was about to arrive, but people were watching and waiting for the main event to then expand," she added.
Two other new features from the Lab were used to cover the inauguration. Users could follow a rolling live blog in a push notification, available on Android users through the Chrome mobile browser, and aimed at providing updates on their lock screens if they "didn't necessarily want to watch or follow along in detail". Those who were following the live blog on the Guardian website on their phones or even desktop were also able to simultaneously read the posts and watch a live stream of the ceremony.
The Lab tried Shifting Lenses again for the Super Bowl on 5 February, together with an updating push alert sent through the main Guardian app that arrived on people's lock screens and would get updated with score graphics and short text during key moments of the game.
Koren said the team has no set plans for a next experiment for now, but they do want to try video notifications again as well as other types of coverage that feel more native to push alerts.
The challenge with live video in notifications would be finding a news event that would generate enough interest and that would be easily available through a live stream, which would have been harder to achieve for the Super Bowl because of broadcasting rights.
"Notifications are still the most immediate way a user can learn about a news event, they're still great for communicating small bits of information very quickly," she said, adding that news organisations should explore the possibilities of personalising push alerts to provide information around specific events or topics.
"If there's one thing that can sum up what we've done in total and what we've learned, it's that people will personalise given the opportunity, and those opportunities, if they're made available for specific kinds of events or information, can lead to really high engagement."
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