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.

  • About Cindy Royal

    Cindy Royal is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University in San Marcos. She completed Ph.D. studies in Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin in 2005. Her career prior to academia included positions at Compaq Computer and NCR Corporation. Her research interests include the social and pedagogical implications of the Internet.


    1. I think that the first and last points are the most important. You need a relevent audience, and usually these audiences get bored very quickly.

    2. Creativity is definitely the most important one. A project that is innovative enough, will attract the appropriate audience on its own.