New York Times iOS App Concept Part I: Allowing the User to Become their Own Editor

Anna Kambhampaty
Oct 23, 2017 · 7 min read

I’m a news buff, to say the least. I listen to podcasts on the daily, have print subscriptions to several magazines, and use about four different news apps. Content-wise, The New York Times is easily one of my favourites. I read their articles from the app, whenever I get a notification, and through Facebook and Twitter shares. I’ve found several people who feel the same way about New York Times content. It’s engaging, eye-opening, and credible. The app, however, is so over-saturated with content and feeds that many of us consume New York Times content from almost anywhere other than the app (our social media feeds, google searches, the print version).

After conducting several reader (and some non-reader) interviews, surveying how high school students, college students, and middle-aged adults from various regions in the United States use the New York Times app and interact with New York Times content, I was able to pinpoint one of the key people problems with the app:

When I open a news app, I want to get information I am looking for (whether this be a quick briefing or content on a specific topic), so I can stay updated on my interests.
But I can’t do that well because:
1. The main feed does not have articles the user is necessarily looking for or cares about
2. Users are not sure where to find what they’re looking for
3. They’re not sure what to even look for, they only know it when I see it

Understanding Why the Current Feeds the App has do not Work

These three screenshots don’t even show all the feeds the app has in this menu…

User Research:
Through my interviews, I discovered that there are two main types of users: people using the app to look for content that engages their interests and people using the app to get a quick briefing. Sometimes these groups of users overlap. Here’s what some of them had to say about finding what they’re looking for:

  1. Not sure which feed has what they’re looking for
  2. More than one feed has what they may be looking for
  3. The feeds are confusing! There’s too many
  4. They are bored by a lot of the content in a single feed, but look through it nonetheless to find a single article they are interested in

Market Research — How other news apps organize their feeds

Apple News and BBC News both offer fewer feeds and, most distinctly, offer a personalized feed. However, Apple News was not preferred by any of the users I interviewed as it took them to other news sources and they often preferred to stay in on one. The BBC personalized feed was not used by the BBC app users I interviewed because they went to BBC for a specific reason already- world news. Moreover, to personalize the feed, the user has to check what issues and topics are interesting to them. It does not pre-populate based off other information the app has about the user (saved articles, Facebook likes, commonly clicked on articles, location, etc.). The users did not like the fact that they had to set it up from scratch.

What’s next?

My proposed solution to the people problem described above is to create a personalized news feed for the New York Times app. However, to avoid the issues that other competitors are running into with their personalized feeds, we must be aware of certain potential issues.

After conducting user research, it was clear that a key issue was that people could not find what articles they were looking for that easily. They searched in several feeds to find an article and weren’t sure it was exactly what they were looking for until they found it (Greg’s interview shows this strongly). After conducting market research, it was clear that a lot of platforms offer personalized feeds! Apple News and BBC News both do this. Both personas described above could benefit from a personalized feed.

Figuring Out How to Create a Successful Personalized Feed

There are certain key issues to be weary of as we go forward with the notion of creating a personalized news feed for the New York Times app:

  1. A personalized news feed can be dangerous. It can keep the user in a rabbit-hole of their own beliefs, not fulfilling the job of a news app to widen a user’s worldview.
  2. It must be determined by the right factors- maybe some users don’t care about news related to their current location, but others do. What do New York Times users specifically want with their personalized feed? How does this vary in this realm itself?
  3. Also, what about the job of the editor? Are we completely pushing them aside by creating a personalized feed for news?

A big concern was that a personalized feed would undermine the role of a news editor, but after some thought & research it came to my attention that maybe it didn’t have to be undermining- it could be augmenting. A news editor’s job is “to oversee the selection and preparation of news items for publication or broadcast.” For what purpose? To inform people. If we can tell, using other data and sources, what people want to get informed on, this would just improve their experience of consuming news. One of the affordances of using a news app over reading a physical paper is that people can search, choose a feed by topic, etc. to find what they’re looking for. In a paper, this can’t be done (as easily). Why stop at just searching and choosing feed? Let the person become their own editor in a personalized feed.

Going forward with creating a personalized news feed for the New York Times app, we have to be cautious of all three of these issues described above- the rabbit-hole effect, choosing the right factors, and not taking away from the role of the editor.

Prototype:

Below is a prototype for a personalized feed feature for the NYT iOS app. The feed is the “home feed” (what is appears when the app is opened from the start) & is pre-populated with articles based off the user’s saved articles & articles they click on frequently from the start, until they choose to personalize it further.

Flows:

Usability Testing of the Prototype:

Objective: Identify pain points with the personalization feature.

Target Users: Current NYT app users or others who consume online news articles through news apps or social media (ages 18–25).

Questions:

Can users figure out how to adjust settings of the personalization?

How do they feel about the amount of options for personalization?

Can they figure out how to get back to the feed?

Can they tell how each article is being populated into the feed?

Can they tell that they can click on that piece of information (of how it was populated into the feed) to be brought to a different feed?

Do you understand the difference between news sections and current issues?

Do you understand what hitting current feed / add to feed would allow you to do?

Tasks:

Connect your news feed with your Facebook account.

Looking at the second article on this feed, where would you go to find more articles similar to this one? How would you do this?

Tell me how you think the third article was populated into your feed.

User Feedback & Key Findings of Usability Testing:

brighter the red, more frequent the response

From user testing, a few key insights with this feature prototype were identified. The personalization process, in some ways, can be tedious and a user may avoid doing it altogether. It’s important to make it easy and built into existing user flows. To do this…

Design Suggestion:

To improve the personalization, it would be worth exploring a concept in which the user is able to add topics to their feed from an article itself instead of just from the edit page. For example, if a user is reading an article from the business section, if they could quickly press a“follow business news” button and then articles from business were added to their personalized feed. This may help because though the edit page for the personalized feed I designed is needed for added a large amount of topics at once (an initial set up), a user may want to add a single topic quickly as they are reading it or find out they are interested in a certain topic as they are reading it (they might not know they are interested in business from the start). This addition to the personalized feed could help avoid what can be tedious process in adding topics to the feed.

Anna Kambhampaty

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Media, tech, art, & the collisions of them all. Senior at Cornell. Previously NYTimes, CNBC, and Syracuse Office of Innovation.