Making it easy

“It’s not about dumbing down or giving up on context — it’s about learning a new grammar that works on a small screen in a distributed world.”

From the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, most people check their phones incessantly, whether they’re in work meetings, a supermarket, a bus, a bar, or the bathroom. And while they’re reading, watching, listening, messaging, liking, or sharing, they’re also being bombarded with notifications of different kinds. Now, on top of that, they’re being told that a lot of it is untrustworthy.

nathalie-malinarichSo spare a thought for the audience. How do they make sense of what to consume, what to tap on, what to follow, and what to share? And how do we, in news, make sure they engage with our content and stay loyal to us?

A minority of people are willing to put effort into finding and consuming news. Most people give up after the first or second hurdle — too many taps, too cryptic a headline, too slow to load, too difficult to read; unless they’re really committed, they’re on to the next thing. On mobile, there are too many alternatives, too many distractions, too much competition for people’s attention.

Facebook has shown how frictionless, effortless video leads to incredible viewing figures — we need to make news consumption as easy elsewhere. Everywhere. In apps, web pages, articles, videos, notifications, and chatbots, ease of use is key.

This is why Mic’s new app is so interesting — pushing rich-media notifications to a user’s lockscreen without the need for them to actually open the app. The battle for the lockscreen is on, and in 2017 more news organizations will be finding more sophisticated ways of pushing their content to phone screens, learning from users’ preferences and tailoring accordingly.

Chatbots have yet to make news consumption easier in messaging apps. In most cases, they replicate existing functions, but require more effort for the user. Similarly, voice services like Alexa can make tasks like getting the weather or listening to music very simple, but not yet news. I doubt many people will have the patience to ask or answer more than three questions to get some newspaper headlines read out to them.

But chatbots and voice-activated assistants will get better and cleverer. News organizations will have to learn to harness their content, expertise, and archives to answer users’ questions and offer truly personalized news services.

It’s not all about new technology and great UX. For those producing the news, this means changes too. Headlines, summaries, and images, always important, are now more so than ever. If they don’t grab the user on a lockscreen or a chat app, that user is gone. How do we communicate simply why a piece should be read or a video watched? It’s not about dumbing down or giving up on context — it’s about learning a new grammar that works on a small screen in a distributed world.

Finally, as our news feeds are filled with stories about fake news, maybe 2017 is the year we work out how to signal to the audience (and, crucially, the major platforms that carry news) that our journalism is trustworthy, without putting the onus on them to do the research.

Nathalie Malinarich is mobile editor for BBC News.

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