Catch Me Up

Taking a News App From Research to Prototype

Knowing nothing would be great; if I knew nothing it would be harder to make assumptions, which are the natural enemy of the user researcher.

I tried to start with a blank slate and make no assumptions until I spoke to actual users.

It’s the first week of my User Experience Design Immersive course at General Assembly, and I’ve been tasked with creating a news aggregator mobile app. I used to work in journalism so I have plenty of ideas of what this could look like, but I try to ignore them all and focus on conducting research.

Before I sit down to interview people who consume news, I conducted a mini literature review to see what recent studies have been done about mobile news consumption habits. My hope is that this will give me a macro view of the potential audience for this app, maybe even a window into some user behaviors.

I came across a number of sources, notably the highly detailed State of News Media 2015 from the Pew Research Center, and some common themes began to emerge:

  • Mobile news consumption is on the rise, both in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Mobile visitors tend to spend less time per visit to a site than desktop visitors.
  • Podcasting is becoming an increasingly popular form of news consumption.
  • Social media plays an important role in how people get their news.
Collecting insights from user interviews. Courtesy of Louis Rosenfeld via Flickr.

Many, but not all, of these themes would pop up again once I began conducting user interviews. Surprisingly, not a single person mentioned listening to podcasts as a source of news. Even when I asked broad questions about preferences between text, audio, and video, text-based news was the clear winner.

I recruited interview participants largely from the pool of people on the General Assembly campus, so I tried to be aware of this sampling bias when drawing my conclusions.

The primary questions I asked all the participants in my first round of interviews were:

  • How do you find out about what’s going on in the world around you?
  • What types of information are important to you and why?
  • When in your day do you usually consume news and where are you when you do it?
  • Are there positive or negative experiences with consuming news that stand out in your memory?
  • Is there anything you’d like to add about how you consume news?

Since I was conducting generative research, I crafted these questions to be open-ended and not steer the interviewee in any particular direction. They were also intended to carry over into the Four List — a synthesis tool for grouping user responses into Contexts, Behaviors, Pains, and Pleasures. Of course, I asked plenty of interstitial questions in the interest of getting people to elaborate on behaviors they brought up and delve into the needs and desires underlying them.

Key Findings

Context — People are always on the go, and they talk about consuming news in bed first thing in the morning, before going to sleep, and in small chunks of downtime, such as waiting for a friend for lunch. 
Behaviors — People consume a mix of hard news, lifestyle news, and “news you can use.”
Pains — People hate video on their phones. They don’t want to feel out of the loop or uninformed. They don’t trust the news, and the overcuration on social platforms is part of that distrust. 
Pleasures — People like getting news that’s relevant to their lives in quick bite-sized pieces. They enjoy a mix of general discovery and researching particular topics, such as the election.

It was interesting to me that even though mobile news consumption isn’t a brand new vertical by any stretch of the imagination, people had so much dissatisfaction with the existing tools for addressing their need to stay informed and in the loop.

Honing My Questions

Now that I had some general ideas about people’s habits and preferences, I wanted to make the questions more specific. So I conducted a few more interviews using the following questions:

  • Do you ever follow a piece of news across multiple devices and if so how?
  • How do you feel about news curated for you?
  • What makes you trust a news story?
  • How often do you explore news based on a particular issue or try discovery?
  • What are some ways that news makes you feel? Does that impact what you seek out?
  • How does the news you read impact your life?

Synthesizing Research and Finding Common Themes

Sitting down with users led to valuable and unexpected insights.

Creating affinity diagrams on post-its and digitally was extremely helpful in identifying trends within user responses. Now that I had identified some of the utilities or functionalities that users cared about, I was ready to articulate a problem statement and a design direction and start sketching.

Here’s the problem statement I settled on: From interviewing news consumers, I learned that they have a hard time finding reliable news that’s relevant to their interests and frame of mind.

To address this problem, I wanted to give users of the app control over curating their news, and take into account the fact that their preferences might change from day to day or even within a given day. Drawing on my newfound understanding of the context where and when people were reading the news, I wanted to users to feel like the app was putting their convenience front and center by asking how much time they had and serving them articles of an appropriate length.

For my first sketch, I borrowed a convention from the music streaming service Songza, which prompts users to choose a playlist by starting with an activity or context, such as cooking dinner or studying for finals. Initially I thought that each of these prompts about a user’s preferences would be its own screen but when I received peer feedback, a number of people suggested consolidating those choices into a single screen.

Songza prompts users to choose a playlist by starting with an activity or context, a feature I emulated in my news aggregator app, Catch Me Up.

Finally, I had enough input to make my paper prototype into a clickable one to see how users handled navigating the app. I gave people the task of finding a news item that might be interesting and relevant to them.

The first clickable prototype. It’s clear I don’t have an MFA on my wall at home ; )

People had positive things to say about the options for sorting through news content, but a few parts of the interface were unclear to them. The icons at the bottom of the screen, which were supposed to represent conversation starters, local news, and trending news were confusing to many people. Others had trouble finding the back button to return to the previous page, and a number of users didn’t find the page for changing their news preferences at all, which was supposed to be a key part of the app’s value proposition.

As a result, in the second prototype, I made the back button navigation larger and clearer and removed the footer icons entirely. I also created a rough (read: very rough) animation within POP to represent how a user’s choices would get sucked up into the header of the screen to serve as breadcrumbs to remind them of what preferences they’d already put in place.

Next Steps

After a few rounds of rapid prototyping on paper and in POP, I feel ready to take this project to a higher fidelity prototype using a tool like InVision. This would allow me to get a better understanding of whether the animation surrounding the filters is clear to users. I’d also like to add some longer article pages to test how scrolling impacts the user experience. In the last round of user testing, I got feedback that users were a bit confused about the filter page and if/how it related to the home page, so in the next version of this prototype, I’d like to find ways to clarify that for potential users.

A keen reader will probably notice that this incarnation of the app doesn’t fully address the problem statement. While the latest prototype of Catch Me Up could help people find news relevant to their interests and their frame of mind, it doesn’t tackle the thorny problem of the reliability of that news. In the service of simplicity and a minimum viable product, I wanted to focus on the core functionality of clean and intuitive self-curation and address news reliability in future iterations of the app.

The design of this prototype was iterated in the course of a few short days, so going forward, a key goal would be finding sample users from more diverse sources and backgrounds.

Tools Used

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