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Nov. 28, 2018, 8:44 a.m.
Reporting & Production

35 prototypes, one year, and lots learned: The BBC puts its mobile storytelling plan in action

In the BBC’s final two experimental rounds, the R&D team focused on 1) tweaking the stories based on each reader’s information needs and 2) breaking down the news into more digestible bits.

Hyperlocal, summaries, perspectives, scrollable video transcript: For the past year, the BBC’s research and development team has been pursuing workable options for mobile storytelling beyond the standard 800-word article. After 35 prototypes (and lots of tapping, swiping, and creating reusable contextual information), the four-person team — including a full-time journalist — has activated at least two new formats in the BBC’s reporting, with more lined up.

We shared the findings from the first round of testing this summer — yes, in an article that was more than 800 words, you can deal with it — focused on providing news for people ages 18 to 26, an underserved group in the BBC’s audience. The BBC isn’t the only media organization looking to move beyond text; a number of outlets are focusing more on product development, with a special track at ONA this year specifically focused on building product skills. Here’s the industry context we highlighted in July:

The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, which operated for two years, tested an interactive podcast player, “Smarticles,” an offline news app, and live push notifications. Newsrooms like The Washington Post have been experimenting with AMP stories boosted by Google’s toolkit, similar to Snapchat or Instagram Stories. The BBC has also been working on more exchanges with its audience like in-article chat bots and improved vertical video within the app.

But there hasn’t been a ton of work on personalizing the reporting to best serve each specific reader. In the BBC’s final two experimental rounds, the R&D team focused on 1) tweaking the stories based on each reader’s information needs and 2) breaking down the news into more digestible bits, helping readers grasp the complexity of various current events. They came out with three top choices for each of those quests, but solid journalism itself — not just the fancy formats — was the most effective.

“The clear favorite prototypes were about explaining things better and showing the many different sides to stories. And I’m not sure you need new formats to do this better,” R&D lead producer Tristan Ferne wrote in his testing roundup; I followed up with him in an interview to get more detail. (The rest of the team included UX designer Thomas Mould, creative technologist Mathieu Triay, journalist Zoe Murphy, and user researcher Johanna Kollman.) But scrollable video transcripts and embeds translating a national story to your local context don’t hurt.

The first round produced four successful prototypes out of 12, and two are now in action on the BBC’s site. Expander is an in-text yellow ellipsis after a key term/event/name/etc. that pops out some more information when clicked, and Incremental is an embed segmenting the story with options for the same content via a video clip, short, or long text. Both have been testing online to positive user feedback. And by user, I mean the reader and the journalist plugging it into a story — one reporter tossed an Incremental piece at the bottom of an explainer on the Interpol elections, which Ferne said they hadn’t anticipated journalists doing in the design process. Expander is the backbone of this lovely named “really simple guide to the US mid-term elections.”

Here are Ferne’s top overall lessons from the year-long process (full details here), followed by the specific prototypes tested (successfully and unsuccessfully) in the second and third rounds.

What to remember

  1. Adaptation, not personalization: “When we use [the word] personalization people [think about] about ads following them around the internet,” Ferne said. “They’d talk about shopping sites and they felt that that jarred a bit with news, so we just decided to not use the word personalization, instead adapting the stories to you and get away from those preconceptions.” He noted that users were happy to swap personal information like ZIP codes for adjusted news, as long as the designers didn’t project a risk of FOMO.
  2. Mobile web, not apps: Since the team aimed to design for Generation Z and lower-income women age 28-45, two groups underserved by the BBC, they focused on designing for mobile web and text-based news instead of storage-needy apps/data plan-eating video.
  3. Adapt the context, not the content: They considered experimenting with personalization by changing the way the stories were written, instead of the story selection — “we thought there might be more of a role testing writing in the journalism,” Ferne said — but ended up thinking of personalization as a way to pull in data automatically adapted to the individual user’s location or other characteristics, like with Hyperlocal (detailed below).
  4. Reduce, reuse, recycle: At the end of the prototype marathon they expected to have one solidly designed and tested format, but “creating many formats was the way to go — creating quite structured formats so you could create reusable content, so it’s not a load of extra effort for journalists.”

What to try

  • Hyperlocal — Imagine reading a few paragraphs about a utility increase or new police policy — and then getting a very clear “what does this mean for me” box adapted (not personalized, of course) to your local area. Depending on the story, it could scale with inserting data broadly, but Ferne raises an interesting point: “The local information is less easily automated, but could there be a role for local journalists in writing these sections for nationwide stories?”
  • Summary — Understanding that many readers encountering an article may not have followed the minute details of an issue outlined in several other articles, this prototype tested journalist-written summaries or a timeline punctuated by previous push alerts (reusing work, yay!). They also attempted to adapt based on a user’s reading history, but that bothered users who might have read up on the topic on other websites.
  • Headlines — Following the theme of reading comprehension in a jiffy, this prototype offers a few tapping rounds for users to dig in beyond the headline/beyond the first few paragraphs (a BBC standard)/the whole article displayed for each tap. “What if articles started as headlines” — not just clickbait — “and then you could control how much you got?” Ferne wrote.
  • Simplify — A play on the Expander prototype from the previous round, Simplify swaps out jargony paragraphs for more basic language that also offers more background/depth.
  • Perspectives — 🚨 User favorite alert: Since the BBC already had clips of different perspectives on an issue for its broadcasts, the R&D team repackaged the clips into an Instagram Story-style (yes, everything is becoming a Story) format where users could select to listen to a victim of knife crime, a gang member, a police chief, and a DJ in the testing example. “They found it made the story feel more objective and less biased than having a single journalist presenting it,” Ferne wrote. Whelp. (This has similar elements as Viewpoints, a successful prototype tested in the first round.)
  • Consequences — Similar to an unsuccessful prototype from the first round, this format offered buttons a user could select to read the impact of a particular issue (say “immigration rules to be relaxed for non-EU doctors and nurses”) on the economy, society, government, and infrastructure.

What not (necessarily) to try

Note: these are my nicknames for the prototypes, not the team’s.

  • Countdown — Six-stories-in-60-seconds sounded catchy but was actually anxiety-inducing for users who thought they’d have more control over the card-centric prototype but had to sit still and absorb rapidly. “It was deliberately provocative,” Ferne said.
  • Gradual context — Inspired by language-learning apps, the team designed a prototype to deliver snippets of an issue each day to reinforce comprehension over time. “People didn’t like us withholding that info from them,” he said. “People were saying if I’m interested in that I’d like to learn about it now.”
  • FOMO-inducing personalization — Self-reporting one’s understanding of an issue by asking users to choose between a story for those unfamiliar with the situation or a format for those who had been following the news (on the same story) was too drastic. Ferne said users ended up reading both kinds to make sure they didn’t miss out. The team also experimented with asking testers if they wanted a local/regional/national version of the same story.
  • Why why why why why — One trick to solving a problem: Keep asking why, and maybe you’ll get to its true root. Ferne hoped that this format, his personal favorite, would help users truly grasp the geopolitics of North Korea and its frenemies, for example (“Why does North Korea feel threatened? Why does it have no allies? Why is it a communist country? And go back to the Korean War,” Ferne said) but users weren’t enthusiastic about the interface.

Ferne and the other team members have finished these sprints; now it’s time for the industry to take the baton. Why? Keep tapping.

Images from BBC’s writeup and video of the prototyping.

POSTED     Nov. 28, 2018, 8:44 a.m.
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