Developing an Effective User Experience

A few months ago, I wrote an article entitled “Making Media Social: News as User Experience”. I talked about the online trend, driven by social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, of users having the growing expectation of participation on the Web. Users want to be able to upload photos, comment on posts or videos and interact with graphics. They want to make connections with others who share the same interests. Some news organizations are experimenting in developing unique and meaningful user experiences that can satisfy these new user requirements, while others are just beginning to consider a foray into this area. While innovation is key, and there are no firm rules, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some considerations and questions that may help guide the process of developing user experiences that will be perceived as valuable by your users.

  • Know your audience. Gather data about online users, local issues and concerns, and pay attention to comments on articles or blogs. Is there an issue of local interest or of broader significance that has a specific local angle? Read other local online publications and pay attention to trends on social media sites. Engage your Twitter followers with questions about potential projects.
  • Play to your competencies/expertise. Focus on the types of projects in which your organization has excelled in the past. Do you have a reporting competency in local politics or crime? Are you in a geography in which entertainment or sports coverage (like Los Angeles or Las Vegas) has become part of your core operation. Do you have access to unique data sources or archived material, and do you have the resources to maintain and update that data, if necessary?
  • Leverage existing tools. Have other parts of your organization or external organizations developed a similar project? What can you learn, borrow or purchase from that organization? Can you leverage an external platform, like Twitter, and engage existing applications or develop new ones with their open-source application programming interface (API)? Or do you need to develop the platform in house?
  • Acquire or develop programming expertise. An organization must consider the skills necessary to accomplish an interactive project. Do those skills exist in-house? Can they be developed or will your organization need to hire or contract with new resources? Research in the types of technologies used to host will be necessary (for example, is there a platform like Pluck, used by USA Today that adds social media features to their publishing system, available for purchase?) Will employees need to be trained or hired in Web framework technologies like Django or Ruby on Rails in order to develop online interactives? What other perspectives will these employees need to understand in order to develop projects that are both compelling stories and technology tools?
  • Consider how will the user interact with the project. Navigation, design and usability will be key to the success of any online presentation. Will it be simple, like The New York Times WordTrain, that requires the user to input a limited number of items, or will it be more a immersive experience that might require more complex instructions, step-by-step guides or special media players? Are these requirements appropriate to your audience and topic? Use design techniques that will improve the use of the site, including meaningful layout, usage of white space, complementary and contrasting colors and branding, if appropriate. Finally, how will users with sense impairments have access to the materials? An appreciation of accessibility standards will be necessary in engaging as wide an audience as possible. Usability testing should be a standard part of any online project.
  • Be creative. Encourage creativity amongst your ranks. Have brainstorming sessions or allow employees to peruse the Web seeking ideas and inspiration. Look at competitors sites to see the types of projects they are developing, and broaden your definition of competitor to include relevant social media sites, blogs and other technology services. Consider projects that might not initially seem standard on a news Web site, like the Washington Post project “On Being”, a video project that provides a quirky, yet poignant take on the fascinating and diverse individuals in their market. Give employees the license to experiment but be ready to accept failure, as long as it is done quickly and cheaply. An experiment using Twitter to crowdsource a story that is unsuccessful may only cost the time of one or few employees, and the learning that comes from such an experience can easily offset the investment. But, a several thousand dollar expenditure in new equipment and resources that spans several months or years and ultimately fails is not acceptable or is rarely necessary, given the proliferation of free or relatively inexpensive tools and services available online.

    News organizations need to understand that an active user is a desirable user and can create significant value for the organization. Social networking trends not only create a sense of urgency for news media to adopt these features, but provides an indication of where competitive endeavors might be emerging. As the news industry struggles to remain relevant and profitable in an online society, it may find solutions and avoid pitfalls by looking at innovative social media companies and the activities of their users. At the heart is a user base that remains engaged and interested in participation. How news organizations interpret this phenomenon may be the salvation of the journalism.

  • Inspiring journalism students to believe… they 'can do anything!'

    Last week I experienced one of my proudest moments in the classroom. It was the last day of the summer session, and students in my Web design course were busily working in the computer lab on final multimedia projects. The room was filled with the sound of keyboards clacking and a hum of conversation. I was moving around the lab helping students troubleshoot the missing quotation mark in HTML or errant action on a Flash scene.

    Suddenly, and without warning, one student, who had been working quietly, excitedly exclaimed, “I feel like I can do anything!” She was sitting in front of a computer screen, editing video in iMovie. Obviously proud of her creation, she was moved to this empowering declaration. Here she was, a female undergraduate student, getting excited about something she created on a computer and associating that with a general sense of agency and confidence. It warmed my heart to the core.

    I have taught numerous students in technology labs over the past ten years, and the majority of them have been female. This is due mainly to the gender representation in the communications discipline in general, which in most programs I would venture is in the 70% female/30% male proportion. It’s not unusual for me to have a class in which only one or two men are on the roster (we had two men in the recent class). I have had much experience in watching female students move from the attitude that “the computer hates me” to a swelling sense of accomplishment as they complete each project. Many have expressed that these skills helped to increase their confidence with technology, and several have gone on to careers in which technology was an integral aspect, including Web design and development roles as well as marketing or communication positions in which usage and understanding of online and social media are essential. It makes me proud every time I hear one of them talk about the latest issue of Wired or explain the professional benefits of Twitter to a fellow student (or professor).

    We have a unique opportunity in media education to train our students in advanced technology skills and concepts, particularly due to the high concentration of women in our discipline. I have discussed this opportunity before and continue to believe it is not only our responsibility but should be our discipline’s mission to effectively impart communication technology skills to our students in a way that instills an innovative spirit and a sense of agency for influencing the direction of the profession.

    Advanced skills in database design and programming are fueling some of the most exciting new journalism projects (see the Pulitzer-price winning Politifact of the St. Petersburg Times or the many Knight-Batten-award-winning projects of The New York Times. But, by and large, those teams are staffed by men. There is no reason why women can’t take part in this new and innovative means of storytelling. We just have to introduce them to the concepts and make them feel that it is a realm that is available to them.

    Can you imagine scores of young women exclaiming “I feel like I can do anything!” just because we took the time to introduce them to, not only technology skills, but also to creative outlets and processes that emphasize judgment and perspective on the digital landscape? Can you envision the effect of legions of journalism grads going out in the world with a sense of passion and optimism about the digital future of news and their ability to direct it?

    I am reminded of the words of Kathy Sierra, a female technologist and author that I have seen many times at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. Sierra’s mantra is “creating passionate users.” Her approach has helped to define my teaching philosophy. I hope to quickly help students over what Sierra calls the “suck threshold,” and get them feeling good about using technology in creative ways. I want them to be excited about the things they are making and their ability to share their creations with the world.

    Whether students shout it out in your classroom or ponder it quietly, it is important to understand education’s role as confidence and empowerment builder. We can debate whether teaching skills or theory is more important and what level of technology exposure our students need. But if we aren’t empowering them to positively view their contributions and to understand their role as innovators, then we are doing a disservice.

    Making media social: news as user experience

    I live in Austin, Texas, and teach at Texas State University, a short drive down I-35 in San Marcos. One thing I look forward to every year with great anticipation is the annual South By Southwest conference that happens in mid-March. Many are aware of the gigantic music festival associated with this event, but a smaller group of tech and media aficionados know about the fantastic Interactive gathering that occurs just before the musicians come to town. It is, by far, the most important event my students and I attend each year. Emerging topics at SXSW quickly become the “next big thing” within a few years. While attending SXSWi this year, an emerging theme that I noticed was that of User Experience (UX). At least one panel had UX in it’s title, and it was a common topic in many of the sessions and overheard in various hallway conversations. Where “content is king” was once the mantra of online publishing platforms, it now seems to have been replaced by “UX is king.” I have shared this observation with many people, and am often met with an initial look of puzzlement followed by the question, “What do you mean by that?” It’s a tough concept for people to grasp, particularly journalists, who traditionally have had control over every aspect of newspaper consumption, other than actually turning pages for readers. Others have a general understanding of user experience in regard to usability and accessibility standards in terms of making a website that has proper functionality, design and navigation that can be accessed by a wide range of users, including those with disabilities.

    But, more and more frequently, when UX is discussed, it is about what users can do online. The social networking sites, like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, have seen to that. These online tools, in most cases originated to facilitate interpersonal communication, are increasingly being co-opted by news organizations so that they too can provide a meaningful experience to their users. The concept of news itself is being redefined as “hyperlocal” when news is as much about what your friends are doing right now as it is about the latest national and international story. And increasingly, breaking news is more quickly disseminated on these online platforms than in their traditional media counterparts (e.g. several examples using Twitter include images from the Hudson River plane crash and early information about the China earthquake). With the increasing usage and reliance on mobile platforms, such as the iPhone, users expect their news to be delivered anywhere, on demand and with special applications (such as iPhone apps), and often expect to be involved in the process via contribution and engagement. News outlets are competing for the attention of consumers with a broad range of professional and amateur communicators, and some are trying innovative ways to engage the modern news consumer. Through these interactions, users are gaining an expectation of participation, regardless of their location or platform of access.

    And, while users don’t necessarily seek monetary compensation for their participation (they seem to derive other forms of social capital from the experience), it is unlikely that they will be willing to pay for content that they are helping to create and publish. Combine this with consumers being accustomed to getting news for free and for having many free alternatives to traditional media content, and the chances of ever being able to charge for the majority of online content (either through subscriptions or micro-payments) become close to nil. So, how are news organizations supposed to build a business model around an increasingly interactive online experience?

    First, it may be helpful to understand what the user experience might look like for a news site. Some news organizations are beginning to understand their role beyond that of content provider to that of architect of user experience. One of the best examples to date is the way in which The New York Times is engaging audiences with their data-driven interactives and WordTrain phrase presentations, delivering news as a two-way experience. One of my favorites, although it has been around for quite some time, is their Rent vs. Buy interactive graphic, that offers the user a completely customizable experience in understanding the factors involved in the decision to rent or buy a home. We talk about this in my classes and discuss how a traditional story about renting versus buying would be written: interview a few people about their decision process, get some anecdotes, talk to a few experts. But, the individual reader would be left to factor their own variables and make a decision. The New York Times interactive provides a tool that helps the user customize their own version of the story, modifying variables and making assumptions relevant to their personal situation.

    The New York Times is also an innovator in a form of crowdsourcing a story via their WordTrain feature. On election night, users were asked to submit one word that described how they felt. The only other piece of data that was collected was their party affiliation. Then the story of the night unfolded as users were able to watch the most prominent terms march across the screen in a visualization. Another popular WordTrain asked users about their feelings regarding the economy and their employment status. The data requirement, and thus the users’ participation, are minimal, much like the parsimony of Twitter’s 140-character limit. But the result is an astounding look at the pulse of an audience’s sentiment.

    The New York Times recently unveiled Times Wire, a Twitter-like feed that pushes short summaries and links to articles based on user preferences, and Times Reader 2.0, a desktop application that downloads stories and presents in columnar format. The Times is also experimenting with different mobile formats including iPhone applications and is one of three newspapers that are in partnership with Amazon to subsidize the price of the Kindle e-book reader.

    The term “hyperlocal” also relates to the user experience as news becomes redefined as anything that is of local interest. Our idea of news now includes what our family and friends are doing, along with interesting links, as well as local, national and international stories. is a project created by former Washington Post journalist/developer Adrian Holovaty and funded by the Knight News Challenge that allows users to engage with and contribute to hyperlocal information based on their exact location. News becomes items like restaurant reviews and sanitation ratings, neighborhood events, local crime statistics and blog commentary. And, has recently announced an iPhone app that makes the hyperlocal experience position-specific, engaging GPS to make the information relative to the user’s exact location.

    Other features that are influencing news engagement are Digg-type popularity ratings and blog comments that allow users more input into how stories are presented. And, many news organizations are going off their platform and engaging tools like Twitter to present news and information in a way that is personal and timely. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Twitter account (@statesman) is much more than a simple RSS feed of stories. The main proprietor of the account, Robert Quigley, uses it to promote stories, break news, get feedback and reply to users, often in a way that promotes a personal side to the publication. This activity takes place outside of the newspapers’ main online presence. But, Twitter offers a variety of ways to repurpose it’s platform, by embedding RSS feeds or widgets of streams or by using the search tool to search tweets for trending topics and real-time sentiment.

    These are just a few ways in which news organizations are experimenting with new presentations of information and ways to engage users. It is still too early to tell which, if any of these innovations will be successful or long term, but these directions are certainly hopeful signs that journalism can and will have a continuing valuable role in society.

    So, as more news organizations begin to understand their role as user-experience creator, what questions can be asked that could facilitate an understanding of potential business models for the future? Here are a few:

    • What expertise is your organization gaining with these new roles? A few things that come to mind that could be developed into business models include creating interactive Web experiences for clients, providing access to data (although privacy concerns would need to be addressed) and managing live, interactive video streams.
    • How can information be repurposed on an ongoing basis? The ability to search, filter and provide meaningful, topic-based archives can continue to drive visitors over time. Consider how content can be aggregated much like the History of Las Vegas project at the Las Vegas Sun.
    • What niches can be tapped that can drive subscriptions or higher ad rates? Can your organization create communities around sports, parenting, local events or issues.
    • How can you measure the success of interactive environments? Eric Ulken recently wrote an excellent post on this topic (“Measuring User Engagement: Lessons from BusinessWeek,” April 16, 2009). In it, he details a number of internal (comments posted, return commenters, times e-mailed time spent on page) and external (tweets/retweets, Diggs, Delicious saves, inbound links from blogs) metrics employed by Business Week. Too often, metrics take the form of hits or pageviews, but that connotes a mass-media mentality and is restrictive in its relevance. It will be important to understand what people are doing with your content and on your platform and how that translates to influence and ultimately profit? But, it may be a two-step model with long-term benefits. Different metrics may be applicable to measuring different activities for achieving a wide range of goals.

    There is no one model, like the subscription/ad-based model of the past. There are no easy answers. But, there are models that can provide inspiration in moving forward. In an article in Wired early last year and in his upcoming book Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired>, outlined several models of free distribution. These models aren’t new and don’t mean that everything is free to everyone. But they do represent the potential for providing some content free of charge in an environment where distribution and hosting costs are approaching zero. News organizations need to look for ways that they can charge a small percentage of their audience that will support the efforts of the entire organization; they need to justify the value of a well-placed ad in a hyperlocal, niche-driven platform; they need to explore relationships with partners that can use their audience as a platform for selling physical goods and services; and they need to understand the value of non-monetary compensation, in engaging in labor exchange or using their platform to promote brand awareness, reputation and community.

    And finally, news organizations need to understand that an active user is a desirable user and can create significant value for the organization, as described by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Create an experience that people are passionate about and sell that to advertisers by emphasizing the association with the good feelings of the interaction, like Coca-Cola’s presence on American Idol. The value is more than just exposure. It is in the way that a user feels about a community in which he actively participates and how that feeling can be transferred to a sponsor. Concert promoters and beer companies figured this out a long time ago. Associating your product with a popular musician, a live experience in which people are passionate, has value and ultimately drives sales.

    Since I live in Austin, known in many circles as the live music capital, I talk to a lot of musicians about using social media. They are dealing with the same issues as journalism, an old revenue model that no longer works and an unclear understanding of new models and platforms. I keep repeating that it’s all about engaging your fan base and creating a community around your music. Everything else will flow from that. It’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But if you are committed to what you do and are open to innovation, there is much more to be optimistic about than pessimistic, and there are opportunities for more rather than fewer in engaging new models. I offer these suggestions as a starting point for media companies to begin the hard work of soul searching to figure out exactly what they do and to identify their value and unique competencies. I realize that none of this is exactly earth-shaking nor entirely new. But, I hope it provides a context for considering the role that innovation and creativity have in the future of journalism. Find inspiration in others outside your immediate purview, those in other industries or endeavors. Look to innovative startups and labors of love. Read publications like Wired that address the culture of technology. And, attend South By Southwest.

    I am not directly affiliated in any way with the South By Southwest conference. I have attended for the past several years, and this year, my Advanced Online Media course provided comprehensive coverage of the event at