Designing for News Services
A WHITE PAPER
Research and writing the evolving landscape of news consumption, the impact of design on the world we live in and how we perceive it.
1 Pathways to News
2 The Rise of Mobile
3 Videos and Ad-Blocking
4 Fake News and Filter Bubbles
5 UX / UI Considerations
Pathways to News
Gone are the days when news was accessed via a select few TV and newspaper channels. Brands now compete for audiences with shrinking attention spans in a multi-platform and fragmented environment.
Design of News services is now more important than ever to ensure audiences are engaging with and trusting their news service of choice.
We explore what this means when designing for news services and platforms.
There are now three main pathways to news, with trust at the heart of whether news is accepted a fact. People are increasingly seeking their news online, with 50% of 18 to 29 years olds and 49% of 30 to 49 year olds in the US preferring online news, only the over 50s still favour TV. 1
Word of mouth will never die out as the original social forum for sharing news. Facebook and Instagram have evolved beyond being platforms for simply connecting with friends or presenting one’s best self to the outside world. Users are sharing less about their private lives, and instead turning to the platforms for news and information, and to Twitter and Reddit for breaking news and trends. Increasingly people to see a news story in their social feeds before hearing it on the news.
The second and arguably hybrid pathway to news is curated. Users seek out platforms, aggregators and blogs that resonate with their views and interests. These may be curated by a human editor, customised by algorithm according to reading and viewing history, or a combination. This curated approach has been widely adopted by social media platforms and news aggregator apps.
The third pathway is the traditional reportorial approach – gathering news from from specific organisations. These include long standing newspaper publishers and TV channels, new digital only platforms, radio, and niche media outlets.
This legacy sector is the one facing the most challenges in the move to a digital, interactive paradigm. More recently it has also suffered a dramatic downturn in trust ratings – down to 43% in the EU and 33% in the USA in 2016. 3
Trust ratings fair best of all in affluent, stable Western European and Scandinavian countries that typically have a strong mix of well funded public service broadcasters and commercial channels.
Soft news / hard news
The pathway of choice depends partly on browsing behaviours (see seekers and stumblers below), however the data shows habits vary largely according to topic area. Millennials in particular tend to rely on social media for so-called ‘soft news’ topics such as lifestyle, popular culture, and entertainment.
For ‘hard news’ topics such as international affairs, business, environment, traffic and weather, and lifestyle outlier – sport, around 60% of 18 to 34 year olds turn to the reporting media of the established outlets. Topics that weight equally across social, curated and reportorial include science and technology, crime, and local news. 4
Erosion of trust
Despite the clear erosion of trust in the press in the US, the final quarter of 2016 witnessed a massive 18% increase in news consumption across the board compared to the same period of the previous year – with national cable TV seeing the greatest increase in audiences. 5 Here’s looking at you 2016 US Presidential election, Brexit, Syria, refugees, Zika viru, terror attacks, celebrity deaths, and #blacklivesmatter.
Paradox of choice
These behaviours raise an important paradox the one hand, established publishers have lost control of the distribution channels of news, with some audiences not knowing where news has come from, and the growing reach of platforms and algorithms. And yet the data shows that consumers still value, identify with, and prefer traditional news brands.
How can effective design assist in building engagement and trust in news services?
Established reporting news outlets still retain the trust of many, but need to evolve swiftly with the changing needs of today’s distracted users to retain audiences. We are seeing visual and ephemeral communication becoming the news delivery method of choice for information fatigued Gen Z.
Outlets should communicate stories visually with pathways to more detail, and consider including short form video at the top of articles. A solid style guide, engaging images, and clear visual hierarchy support audiences through meaningful journeys. Finally, for organisations to capture tomorrow’s consumers, they must diversifying channels for greater reach, and design the right solutions for the right platforms with the end users always in mind.
The Rise of Mobile
Overall, more Millennials get their news online in the process of completing other digital tasks (55%), than specifically seek the news out (44%). 7
A majority of 18-34 year olds now stumble across news items while completing other digital tasks such as browsing their Facebook or Twitter feeds. Less than half actively seek out new from sources they trust.
Rely on friends, family, social media, and word of mouth to keep them up to date.
More inclined to follow “soft topics” including entertainment and news you can use how-to guides, hobbies and fashion.
Follow specific news outlets and topics.
May use news aggregator sites & apps.
More inclined to follow “hard topics” such as current events, social issues, politics, foreign affairs, crime, and environment.
News comes to us
In 2015 the average Millennial (age 18-34) reported getting 74% of their news from online sources, the most active age group online. 9 In 2016 this trend continued, with 89% of Americans across all ages reading news on their mobile. With device in hand throughout the day – waking up; commuting; on the go; waiting for a friend; half watching TV; going to bed – mobile news continues to rise.
Near constant connection to the internet has established new behaviours and habits around consuming media and news, with people increasingly expecting the news to come to them. While trawling social media feeds to pass the time, many users have come to rely on these streams to keep them up to date on the world.
Stumblers (55%) are more likely to rely on word of mouth, and friends and family to stay informed. A greater reliance on social media as the arena of choice, skews content towards the ‘soft news’ areas of entertainment, how-to-guides and trending topics.
Seekers (44%) are more likely to follow specific outlets or aggregators, and ‘hard news’ topics including national and international current affairs, politics, and the environment. They express a deeper in the news in general, with 63% reporting that they follow the news all or most of the time, compared with 43% of those who do not tend to seek out news online. Seekers are less likely to say that friends and family are an important way to get news (56%), compared with 69% of stumblers citing this a preferred method. 11
The most successful platforms are designed for both Stumblers and Seekers. With many people now expecting news to come to them directly, publishers such as CNN, BBC and the Guardian have capitalised on their established brands, and both behaviour patterns by investing in their own news apps.
Aggregators will continue to grow, as users seek stories from a variety of trusted sources
We have seen the growth of news aggregators like Apple News, which launched in the US, UK, and Australia in 2015. The personalised interface for multiple branded news sources competes directly with popular mobile news apps like Flipboard, SmartNews, and Upday for Android. Customisation within these apps allows users to curate their own experience and make the news relevant to them – across content areas, as well as timing and frequency of alerts.
Interactive formats have also been explored to mixed success, as many consumers still prefer news to be scannable. Quartz news app uses a scripted chatbot and series of templated responses to mimic natural conversation about breaking news topics. Users select ‘tell me more’ or ‘anything else?’ replies to dive deeper or read more headlines. The app uses animated GIFs and emoji to keep the tone light hearted, however this may require careful implementation surrounding any more serious stories.
Facebook Messenger has also brought news into the conversation space by allowing users to follow and interact with news outlets like CNN and Wall Street Journal within the platform itself. While these bots still largely follow the scripted response approach, Facebook has been investing in machine learning and AI in its virtual assistant M – its conversational UI that will become available to businesses across the board for targeted, interactive customer service. However with some users perceiving news bots as a gimmick and being reluctant to adopt them as their main source of news, time will tell whether news outlets see enough value in the chat model to co-opt or invest in more automated technology.
We need to design for real life. We need to design for the user on the move.
Audiences are multi-tasking, distracted and time poor. Gestural navigation allows users to quickly swipe through scannable headlines till they find a story of interest. Floating social icon bars encourage instant sharing. Lazy loading gives the feeling of endless content while cutting load times. Autoplay (ideally on silent if scrolling) and recommendation engines take the burden of decision off the user, while optional customisation provides variety and choice for those wanting more.
Videos and Ad-Blocking
Ad-Blocking is forcing established publishers to compete on quality and reliability under new business models, with Publishers recognising they now need to ride two horses.
Spoon feeding audiences
As the channels of distribution have proliferated, so have attention spans dwindled. An increasingly popular format for accessing news, breaking stories and analysis is short form video. Formats range from news explainers like VOX (2.2 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.4 million likes on Facebook, as of June 2017) , to political satire talk shows hosts like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah (on the progressive side), and Fox News Insider on the conservative end of the spectrum.
News distribution diversifies
Networks have come to accept that as they can no longer control distribution, they may as well make use of new channels to reach wider audiences and bring them back to their brand. When The Colbert Report was at Comedy Central, videos of the show were posted weekly on YouTube however were (and still are) limited to viewing in the US. Since moving to CBS for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, clips are still uploaded weekly however are now available globally. Interestingly the Late Show Youtube channel has 2.6 million subscribers (more than three times the network’s 800,000 followers).
We can expect more short form videos from ‘traditional’ publishers, as they struggle to adapt to the new status quo.
Short form news video
Successfully viral short form news videos excel in breaking down complex issues into bite size chunks in language that is accessible even to users with little knowledge on the topic. Such content has been accused of dumbing down news for the masses and contributing to the post-truth era by further cheapening journalism. However with many users suffering from information overload, such low effort content has proved to be popular.
Zero effort content
Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram became internet superpowers by delivering a smorgasbord of compulsively clickable and endless scroll content. They captured the market on zero effort video by removing all hurdles to playback. Autoplay requires no user input to grasp the viewer’s attention, the video then has about 3 seconds to convince them to stay. Autoplay can also propel a user to keep scrolling out of irritation or disinterest and thus discover more content. Either way the platform wins so long as users’ attention is kept within it.
As the established outlets moved from print to digital it was immediately clear that users expected content to be free or they would go elsewhere. Newspapers have long relied on advertising to fund distribution, however the move to smaller handheld screens has reduced the real estate available to advertisers, and the rise of ad-blocking has forced publishers to re-assess their entire business model.
Reasons for Motivations behind ad-blocking vary greatly, from a desire not to be interrupted or conned by ads, to privacy concerns around targeted content following users, to loading times, to the drain on data as an expense. Ad-blocking is most prevalent in the 18-24 tech savvy age bracket, with mainland Europe out-blocking the USA and the UK. The practice is most common among those who consumer the news most heavily. Some 60% of Poles (18-24) use an ad-blocker extension in their browser, compared to 46% of Brits and 44% of Americans in the same demographic. 13 The older the user, the less likely an ad-blocker will be in place. However ad-blocking has surged 30% globally in 2016 compared to the previous year. 14
The majority block ads at the browser level on desktop or laptop. At the device level, uptake has been slower with only around 8% of people using an ad-blocker in their smartphone browser. In 2016, UK and Italy based mobile network Three explored offering opt-in ad-blocking to its customers at a network level, but swiftly backed down under pressure from behemoths such as Google and UK media owners Ofcom. 15
What does ad-blocking mean for news and media outlets?
The rise of mobile and growth of ad-blocking renders the traditional advertising model defunct and has news outlets experimenting with new business models, with some opting for subscription, others choosing to block the ad-blockers. However sites using ad-block walls see an abandonment rate of around 74%. 16
Many publishers recognise they now need to ride two horses – investing simultaneously in websites and apps where loyal audiences can find real value and ultimately be monetised. Advertising is becoming increasingly covert with native ads, sponsored content and viral video marketing flying being designed to fly under the radar of ad-blockers. Video content needs to be both engaging and accessible, with support for closed captions and translations, and autoplay on silent to capture user attention.
Fake News and Filter Bubbles
The filter bubble
In the aftermath of the unexpected Brexit referendum outcome and Trump election victory in 2016, the filter bubble has surfaced in the collective consciousness. People increasingly understand that their digital world may have narrowed to the point of parting ways with reality.
This cognitive dissonance was felt most by liberals, moderates and the left in the aftermath of their unexpected populist defeats. Conservatives, nationalists and the right have had less reason to examine their own echo chambers.
The filter bubble locks users into their own personalised feedback loop.
How did we end up this situation and what does it mean for news consumption in the longer term? For a few years now, unseen algorithms in Facebook have been curating our news feeds to align with our previous browsing habits. The results is that most posts we see end up supporting our respective world views, and dissenting or less welcome posts are de-prioritised or hidden.
Facebook sorts the posts according to creator, post, type, recency, and other highly personalised factors and assigns a personalised relevancy score unique to each user. Based on this, posts are granted different levels of visibility within a user’s newsfeed. Beyond liking a few choice news pages, this use of system intelligence keeps the newsfeed relevant with little active input from users.
Fake news is both a symptom and a cause of the filter bubble, and falls roughly into three categories: satire; propaganda; and fabricated clickbait.
Satire is social commentary delivered through mockery and imitation of real life events or actors. Designed to entertain rather than deceive, The Onion is a well known example that is explicit about its satirical nature. While some self-described satire sites are less transparent and set out to intentionally deceive, even clearly signposted satire such as The Onion can be interpreted by the less informed (or the gullible) as true stories, especially when world events may be arguably stranger than fiction itself.
Propaganda is highly biased or misleading information created to promote or confirm a specific ideological outlook for political gains. Frequently published by established platforms or by political actors themselves, these kind of articles often contain at least some truth making them highly believable.
Fabricated clickbait is the most well known and deleterious form of fake news. Clickbait uses partially complete, misleading or false headlines to get users to click on them. The goal is to spread via shares to the maximum number of consumers for financial or ideological gain.
These kind of hyperpartisan and deceptive articles reached fever pitch in the run up to the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election. On Facebook, the top fake news stories around the US election generated more engagement than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. 17 Remaining largely neutral to the dissemination of information simply allowed those with the most extreme views or strongest agenda to shout the loudest.
While Facebook claims not to be a news platform, there has been substantial debate and criticism around the company’s impact on democracy itself. The social network announced via a white paper in April 2017 that it has launched a fact checking initiative and is hiring thousands more staff to help stem the flow of fake news and deliberate misinformation. 18
Race to the bottom
Whether written or video, news content produced with a clear political agenda or bias thrives on moral outrage. When content that is supposed to be factual – such as news – competes in a race to the bottom for likes and shares, objective reporting is ultimately disincentivised.
The most damaging conclusion to this cycle, is that many including world leaders have increasingly come to apply the label fake news to any reporting or analysis they don’t agree with – regardless of facts – further eroding trust in the fourth estate of journalism.
How can effective design help media organisations regenerate trust that has been lost?
Without the confidence of audiences, news outlets as the purveyors of objective truth have nothing left to sell. Trust and reliability have re-emerged as valued benchmarks of quality, with platforms like Facebook pioneering fact-checking in the fight against misinformation, manipulation and polarisation. While presenting these initiatives as a noble quest to protect and promote civic engagement and discourse, the fact is that when users tire of an avalanche of clickbait or lose faith in Facebook, the platform’s days are already numbered.
New outlets across the spectrum need to champion integrity to win trust. Verification processes, visible and accessible sources, highlighting public corrections and updates, all enhance an organisation’s legitimacy. Greater transparency around filters with opt-out and customisation put users in control of their experience.
UX / UI Considerations
Trust and authenticity
Design plays and important role in re-engaging increasingly skeptical and overwhelmed audiences. As news has moved into the social, making compelling content easy to find and share is the first step to the successful spread of information. To keep users engaged, platforms where news is shared need a convincing way of sorting the real stories from deliberate falsehoods. Consumers would benefit from an objective verification badge of truth that can be trusted – regardless of where they may place themselves on the political spectrum. System intelligence should prioritise accuracy over propaganda to burst filter bubbles. Autoplay and post-watch recommendations can surface contrasting viewpoints to deepen understanding, generate empathy for opposing sides and combat polarisation.
Let users own the experience
Established publishers may have lost control of distribution channels and revenue streams, but audiences still prefer and identify with traditional news brands.
With stories read within the Facebook browser, or shared in bitesize chunks over Twitter and Snapchat, news outlet have little choice but to leverage the social. To avoid perishing at the mercy of algorithms beyond their control, organisations either have to get their content prioritised, or allow users to curate their own experiences within custom, monetizable platforms.
Design for real life
With users consuming on the move, ultimately we need to design for real life: we are busy, distracted, multi-tasking, commuting, at work, waiting for a friend. The right decisions in designing a UI, structuring information architecture, and guiding users from one piece to the next to provide essential context around a subject, can help facilitate the innate human desire to share stories.
This paper was researched and written in June 2017, while at Massive.
youtube.com - May 2017