A (quick and dirty) vision of how WhatsApp could integrate news

In my previous post, I mentioned that the Quartz app experience so closely apes the experience of using chat apps that it would make more sense just to roll this functionality into a chat app like WhatsApp.

I wasn’t being entirely fair to the Quartz app — it aggregates content from multiple sites more than I initially thought, meaning the app is more of a full news digest than just a digest of Quartz’s news. The result is that it has much longer legs as a standalone news experience than just as a route into the Quartz site — though one wonders if app sponsorship will let them monetise this sufficiently.

Still, my principal argument remains — that the future of news is accessing it through social media (including chat apps), into which news providers will become ever more tightly integrated. This would make standalone news apps increasingly irrelevant. Instead, what if WhatsApp were to follow Twitter’s Moments, Instagram’s Spotlight and Snapchat’s Discover and add its own way of accessing news, using the same sort of conversational UI as Quartz? Lacking any primary research, I’m going to make one long argument about why this could perhaps work before sharing some rough designs of how it might be done.

Why add news?

The first question to answer is, what problem would doing so solve and for whom? This is an age when the public has both little trust in the media and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of news they need to keep up with. Clearly, there is an ever greater need for curation, but also a need to engender trust. Having the interface either act as (or be) an intelligent virtual assistant would be one way to engender such trust. It removes the facelessness of online news, and allows us to add personality — an editorial voice — to the news being disseminated. We also know that people trust their friends more than any advertising and news source ); this approach helps to appropriate some of this trust for the news provider. Get this voice right (though the copy) and it feels like the news is coming from a trusted friend rather than a media conglomerate. An intelligent assistant that provides a curated digest of the news does therefore solve a real design problem.

Text is also a very powerful medium for interaction, as Jonathan Libov argued last year. Typing is more private, takes less mental and physical effort than speech, and more importantly means that I don’t need to download an endless succession of apps to do things (an issue with the standalone Quartz app). All of the power I need to perform a series of tasks could live in the chat interface itself. So if we interact with some sort of intelligent assistant (or something that feels like one), text is a great way to interact.

The value of multiple curators

So far, the Quartz app ably managed all of this. Yet it misses one key thing — readers may trust a small number of news outlets and enjoy their distinct editorial voice. We want to prune the amount of content that we are bombarded with, but merging all news outlets into a single feed throws the baby out with the bathwater. I may want to know what Rolling Stone thinks are the things I need to know about music — and see their amusing and insightful bon mots in the feed of messages — yet get my international news from The Telegraph. Or tech news from The Verge. The joy of having many news sources is the variety of curation, editorial and commentary. Smushing all of this into a single feed, with a single curator and a single tone of voice loses this richness. Whilst individual articles do carry this editorial voice, what articles are selected — and how they are contextualised — is just as important.

Messaging through a chat medium like WhatsApp is much more intimate than say, Twitter or RSS. Providing news through WhatsApp could therefore be a way for users to connect with a small number of trusted media outlets to get a colourful digest of the latest news in whatever field of interest. Each source would have its own feed — it would be a “contact”. It’s unlikely that users would want to invite more than a select few news sources to interact with them in this very intimate way. Delivering news in this way is more likely to engender trust and find a balance between being overwhelmed by a flood and removing all distinction and personality from different news providers.

Do one thing and do it well?

So there is a problem that could be solved. Is it the right approach for WhatsApp? The first argument against this would be that WhatsApp is a very focused app and adding superfluous cruft like a news tab would lose that simplicity and focus. True, but SnapChat Discover is somewhat crudely bolted on to a focused messaging experience and has been very successful — Cosmopolitan may be getting as many as 3 million unique viewers a day through Discover. Whilst adding features like this may seem like bloat to us, it’s also worth remembering who the users of WhatsApp are. WhatsApp is especially popular in lower income and newly industrialised countries, where the app is being used in a huge number of ways already, from monitoring elections to being used to run entire small businesses — people are already doing more than just chatting, even if the interface doesn’t explicitly support these uses.

Indeed, even as the unbundling trend looks troubled in the US and Europe, Chinese apps such as WeChat are successfully being transformed into platforms with a dizzying array of features. And indeed, Facebook has big plans to add functionality to WhatsApp, first of all by letting businesses connect with customers through the app. Indeed, it is already in the process of opening up Facebook Messenger as a platform

We still don’t want to add superfluous bloat, but the Quartz app’s use of a conversational UI shows a way of delivering news that is consonant with WhatsApp’s core messaging experience. How might this be added to WhatsApp? What follows isn’t meant to be a Dribble-esque unsolicited redesign or any sort of strong design suggestion, but a thought experiment to explore if this could work and understand the implications of interacting with news providers in this way. Needless to say, everything shown below is very rough and provisional, and none of it has any official relationship to WhatsApp or any news provider. Indeed, almost everything shown here could work just as well with Facebook Messenger, WeChat or any other chat app.

The News tab

Globe icon via Edward Boatman on The Noun Project

The first and simplest change is to add a news tab. This would require the “Recents” tab — used for calls, missed calls etc. — be removed. Other chat apps add the call log to the chat history itself and this works in a fairly intuitive way, meaning WhatsApp could probably do away with the Recents tab without causing confusion.

News sources — minimum viable product

In the News tab itself, the minimum viable experience would be to list the user’s chosen news sources, with the latest message shown as for any other contact. The news sources behave and feel like contacts, but should perhaps be given a separate tab so not to blur them too fully with other contacts. I imagine there’d be some kind of onboarding experience to encourage users to add a few news sources, but otherwise this would be the default tab view.

What’s immediately clear is that users would not want to allow very many news providers to interact with them in this way. Chat messaging is by its nature deeply personal, and no one wants to be spammed on this channel with a hundred news updates. I think the 5 shown would probably be the upper limit, and most users would choose a spread across world news, entertainment, technology etc.

By default, the user would receive a notification when x articles are available or on x time of day etc. (i.e. the algorithm would have a few rules) so that users receive a digest from each news provider. The user could choose to be notified on a per-article basis, though of course, not every article published by the news provider would be featured in this curated digest, so it still shouldn’t form an overwhelming stream.

News sources — enhanced view

This could then be enhanced in the future with a “trending” feature, similar to Instagram’s Spotlight or Twitter’s moments. Here the WhatsApp team could collate articles from multiple sources, with the WhatsApp team providing their own editorial glue between each post. This could be especially useful for live updates of events, such as the Grammys as shown above.

There could also be a richer space to promote additional news providers to the user, as in the “Popular” section.

Curated news “chat”

So the first thing worth noting here is the colour scheme. It’s wrong, and the blue background is far too overpowering versus the content. Still, what I want to communicate is that news providers (in this case the Guardian) should have some control over the look and feel of their stream, and be able to ensure that it is on-brand. This could even extend to the typography. Otherwise, the chat log would work in much the same way as the Quartz app, with users getting a digest of the latest news wrapped in zesty copy and editorial. As with the Quartz app, news providers would still be free to link other sources if they so wish.

I imagine there would be some kind of ad revenue split between WhatsApp (i.e. Facebook) and the news provider for ads shown in the stream.

Article view

Selecting an article would either open a web view or, ideally, A Facebook Instant Article, reducing the load time of the content and improving the sometimes tedious hub-and-spoke navigation of the Quartz app.

Sharing messages

Finally, sharing posts would involve sharing not just a link to the article but the “chat” message from the news provider itself, maintaining the personality imbued in the message copy.

So, how well does this work? I think it demonstrates that some kind of news feature could be supported in a chat app like WhatsApp. It makes the news personable, easy to digest and importantly easy to share. The interaction also feels more at home in a chat app than in a standalone app. Obviously there are lots of rough edges in something as sketchy as this — exactly how and when users would be notified would need far more consideration, for example.

The biggest unanswered question is the most fundamental one: is this an effective, enduring way for users to receive news? We’ll have to see how the Quartz app continues to perform before we can judge that, but I certainly feel they’re on to something. It is a little slow compared to scanning a list of articles, but that’s the trade off for a more “guided tour” of the latest news. It’s more a question of how this service is provided and wrapped up — who is sending these messages and how engaging they are — that will determine our willingness to continue to receive them.

Ultimately though, even something like this may be a stopgap as social networks –as well as news providers — become just a service layer in the OS. Siri, not Quartz or WhatsApp, may be the intelligent assistant who provides your news digest in the future. Until then, however, social networks — and chat apps — will be serving an ever greater slice of our news.


Originally published at mjparnell.com on February 22, 2016.