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Aug. 3, 2018, 9:30 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

With “Your Feed,” The New York Times lets iOS users follow topics and journalists (in a non-overwhelming way)

In user research, The New York Times found that “following” topics and specific journalists was a top request. So it built “Your Feed.”

The New York Times has a new notification for you: Open its iOS app and, in the upper right-hand corner of the home screen, you’ll see a new icon right next to the Times logo. That’s “Your Feed,” a major new feature that the Times rolled out to all iOS app users this week and officially announced on Friday.

The Times publishes around 160 articles a day, and most of those will never be on the homepage of the app or in the section fronts. “Your Feed” is designed to help readers follow content they might miss otherwise. They can select from 24 channels to follow — some organized around section or topic (“From the Magazine,” “Gender & Society,” “The Mueller Investigation,” “Books of the Week”), others based on specific columnists (Nicholas Kristoff, Farhad Manjoo’s State of the Art column).

The feed also contains exclusive, tweet-length content from Times newsroom staffers and columnists, using a bot to pull that stuff straight from the Times’ Slack channel. (The fact that this Slack thing is just a tidbit in a story about a much larger feature provides another reminder, if you needed one, of how far ahead of almost all other newspapers the Times is in everything from app development to user research to developer resources.) Outbound links to non-Times stories will occasionally be included as well.

The Times’ previous experimentation with customized content and messaging provided the necessary foundation to pull off the launch, said Norel Hassan, the lead product designer of Your Feed. “It took about six months,” she told me, including in-person research. Hassan’s post announcing the launch of Your Feed is interesting to read all the way through, but one key thing she notes is that the Times’ first assumption about what readers would want from a new feature proved wrong:

Our initial hypothesis was that readers wanted a better way to save content, but in the end, we discovered that the ability to follow different types of content was the greater user need…

It became clear that the ability to follow New York Times content was a promising opportunity to serve unmet user needs. Of all the hypothetical features we tested, Follow proved to have the fewest number of workarounds, while also solving for several different user needs at once. It was the biggest hole our team could fill in our product.

(You can also save articles on the Times app, by the way.)

“Your Feed” is entirely curated by editors — there’s no AI at work here the way there is in another recent Times product launch, the “Your Weekly Edition” newsletter that surfaces some content based on what logged-in users have read on the site in the past. “We don’t want to send an overwhelming amount of content to our readers,” Hassan said. She explained in the blog announcement:

We couldn’t make topic-based channels draw content algorithmically because it could inundate users’ feeds — we may publish dozens of stories on a particular topic in a given week, for example. So our topic-based channels (Climate Change, Health & Fitness, Space) are curated by New York Times editors who ensure we deliver a diverse selection of stories.

More personalization might ultimately be built into Your Feed, said product manager Kika Gilbert but not without explicit signaling. “We don’t want to put anything in there that will surprise people,” she said. (I was pleasantly surprised that this is a women-led product team.)

The most surprising thing in my week-long test of Your Feed, in fact, was that when I opened it, I often saw articles I’d seen in in previously. It’s not updated 24/7 — and this, according to Hassan, is by design. “

“Interview after interview, users discussed how they feel overwhelmed and want solutions for navigating a nonstop news cycle,” she wrote. In previous messaging experiments, “Too many new stories resulted in users ignoring the feature. Readers said it was too close to their real email inboxes and it made them feel like they were working through a to-do list, instead of catching up on their interests in an enjoyable way.”

POSTED     Aug. 3, 2018, 9:30 a.m.
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