What The Guardian has learned trying to build a more intelligent story format — one that knows what you know

Over the past several months, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab has introduced a new format that we have been working on: the Smarticle. We’ve now run three Smarticle experiments, and learned a lot about how readers like the format and what topics work well in it. Most significantly, we learned that there’s an appetite for this story format: Through a combination of written feedback from users and analytics, we learned that people enjoyed consuming news in this way, and they were comfortable only receiving elements of the story that were new to them. Continue reading “What The Guardian has learned trying to build a more intelligent story format — one that knows what you know”

The Guardian Mobile Lab’s latest experiment targets public transit commuters with an offline news app

Over the summer, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab hinted at its next experiment: improving the experience of consuming news when offline. Now it’s revealed the trial product, a news app that incorporates location sharing, content and time customizations, and user data transparency — but is only available for the next few months.

The Lab introduced LabRdr — which can apparently be pronounced like “lab reader” or “Labrador” or another general squish of consonants — on Wednesday. Designed for the public transit commuter who may lose cell service on the subway, for example, and then be left with nothing to read, the app prepares a “package” of Guardian content based on the user’s previous reads in the app and the current stories of the morning or evening. It’s delivered twice a day via push alert, at the times the user has specified they’re commuting; each package contains an amount of content that the app determines will be readable within the duration of each user’s commute.

And yep, location factors in. “We’re experimenting with making offline news reading easier and more relevant, through automatic personalizations of your reading package based on signals like your interests or, possibly in the future, your location and what’s being read nearby,” Mobile Lab editor Sasha Koren noted in the Medium announcement:

LabRdr’s approach to offline news reading is experimental, and different from existing offline news apps in a few ways: Rather than give you all current stories on every topic, it delivers only a self-contained package of Guardian articles keyed to your interests, twice a day just in time for your commute, at times you can specify.

As you use it, it learns what you like to read and delivers you content keyed to your interests. (We’re setting aside important conversations about filter bubbles for now to learn something about personalization.) In addition, we show you how we use the data you share with us, in an effort to enhance trust through transparency…

What we’re looking to learn

What makes a good content recommendation system for news? A lot of the existing work about content recommendations are around e-commerce and we’re interested in what signals are particularly good for news organizations and news reading.

We’re also looking to gauge readers’ reactions to the utility of having a short package of news defined for them for a set period of time. Without the option to read a full spectrum of articles on many topics, will they feel better informed with those they do read, or have a sense of achievement at completing a few articles in a set?

As with all our experiments, we’ll report on what we learn in follow-up posts after the app has been running for a while and we’ve collected and analyzed data and reactions.

LabRdr isn’t the first attempt at improving offline news. Way back in 2012, reading apps News.me and Instapaper both endeavored to serve the offline reader and relied on location to do so, but News.me didn’t survive a Twitter API update. Other apps like Pocket or Evernote require the readers themselves to do the legwork of saving the content for later perusing, rather than having relevant material presented to them.

Another difference is that the Mobile Lab is making an effort to share the data it collects through LabRdr. In a section of the app called the Log, you can view the tracked reading and commute patterns. “The app is a really good first step for gathering information, using it in a respectful way, and seeing how people feel about that,” said Sarah Schmalbach, co-leader of the Mobile Lab with Koren and its senior product manager. She pointed out that readers might feel different about sharing personal information with a news organization than they do about sharing it with, say, Google Maps or Amazon.

“If we can deliver news in more contextually relevant moments, then [will] that content be more valuable to the user?” wondered Connor Jennings, the app’s developer, who came up with the idea during his own frustrating experience reading offline news during his commute.

The team hopes to share its findings about reader trust, habit formation, and more with news organizations; the Mobile Lab is funded by the Knight Foundation (disclosure: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight) to explore solutions for the mobile news experience. But its sample will likely be restricted to those who commute using public transit, rather than people who drive, bike, or walk to work.

“It’s pretty narrow. We’re not targeting people who don’t commute; we’re not targeting people who commute by car. There’s a whole range of people we’re not gearing this toward,” Koren acknowledged.

LabRdr provides a “targeted product until we get better and deeper insights,” Schmalbach said. “We’re confident that the audience is big enough to get a big read on this content.”

Like the Mobile Lab’s other experiments — such as real-time Guardian commentary on a U.S. presidential debate via push alert; live push notifications with the Wall Street Journal — LabRdr is a temporary project. It will be removed from the App Store (it’s iPhone-only) after a couple of months.

Subway commuters by Susan Jane Golding used under a Creative Commons license.

The Wall Street Journal tested live push notifications, with some help from the Guardian’s Mobile Lab

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its jobs report at the beginning of the month, news organizations unleashed their push notifications.

On Friday morning, the Wall Street Journal tested live mobile push alerts for their jobs coverage, working closely with the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, which has been for the past year tirelessly testing a range of ideas for distributing news that make the most of people’s phone-reading preferences.

Readers who arrived at the Journal’s mobile site or its Android or iOS apps were able to read its live coverage of the jobs numbers for July — but were also alerted with preview push notifications on updates as they read the existing analysis on the page (readers could dismiss and keep reading, or jump to the update from the push alert).

Journal developers built the infrastructure for the live notifications, and its markets team reported on the event and sent the pushes. The Mobile Innovation Lab provided guidance — based on learnings from its own past experiments and user testing — throughout the process, from evaluating design prototypes for the alerts to crafting an effective survey for users who encountered the Journal’s experiment.

The Journal has its own internal live coverage tool, built ahead of the Iowa Caucuses coverage in time for last year’s elections, but hadn’t dealt with live push notifications, according to Jennifer Hicks, deputy managing editor of digital at the Journal.

“We had a highlights feature where we could pin key posts, but we couldn’t notify readers within the live reading experience,” she said.

The Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab had been hosting some get-togethers and roundtables with various news organizations after the November 2016 election around news notifications, and the Journal expressed interest in trying out an experiment with the Lab. Work on this project started in June.

“There were lots of experiments the Guardian group was doing, so we talked about what we could bite off and pull off in a short amount of time,” Hicks said. “For us, it was also an opportunity to change our culture and talk directly to readers about testing a new feature.” (The Journal and Mobile Lab teams had a joint Slack channel going morning of the live notifications project for potential troubleshooting in implementation.)

The Journal plans to use the live notifications feature in future live coverage (with tweaks as necessary), according to Journal mobile editor Phil Izzo: “From jobs reports to the Olympics to terrorist attacks, we use live coverage a lot, and that’s one of the reasons we really wanted to build this out, since we knew there were so many use cases for it,” he said.

Both the Guardian and Journal teams emphasized the project’s experimental nature; it’s the first partnership of this kind for both organizations. The Lab is welcoming similar partnerships with other interested outlets.

“In the Lab we’re working for the industry and not just for ourselves — if we were to experiment in silence for two years and not share tips and tricks that we’ve experimented with, that wouldn’t be fulfilling the mission of the Lab,” Sarah Schmalbach, the Lab’s senior product manager, said. “We have been flexing our notifications muscle, then when we felt more confident in what we’d learned, we began to host events to ask other organizations what they were doing, where we’d then make a point to say, please come talk to us if there’s anything we can do to help, any data we can provide. Maybe we can launch something together.”

“We really relied on Sarah and [Mobile Innovation Lab editor] Sasha Koren to provide expertise in terms of, how do you talk to your audience directly, how do you conduct a real-time experiment, how do you offer a survey to audiences that gets you useful and actionable feedback,” Hicks said. “We had a lot of guidance on how to set up an experiment, which is not something we’ve done regularly at the Journal.”

Data points the Journal will evaluate for this jobs report experiment center around engagement, and include time spent on the live coverage, whether readers dismissed the notifications or clicked into the post, and bounce rate during the live event.

“Another thing we’re thinking about is, does this tell us anything about experimentation at the Journal?” Izzo said. “Did we make the job reports live blog better, because we put more attention to it, and should we push to do more things like this in the newsroom in general?”

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