Evolving with audience in mind

TicToc Case Study: What we’ve learned and what we’ve done in our first year of design research

Karen Johnson
Jan 31, 2019 · 7 min read
Screen cap from the @TicToc Twitter page.


Context: What are the unmet needs of social-first news seekers? BHIVE embarked on a collaboration with TicToc to better understand how people navigate and access news via Twitter. What started as a series of informal interviews has evolved into an ongoing research effort that has shaped TicToc’s overall experience and helped inform how we bring the voice of our audience to the forefront.

Research Question: The first year of TicToc research focused on answering a big question: How can we better meet modern audiences where they consume the news?

Outcomes: Working with BHIVE, the TicToc team used research insights to inform the creation of a new design template that helped to improve the brand’s overall user experience.

We started our work with a thought experiment: Put yourself in the shoes of someone who grew up with digital media. How would you consume the news if your phone was your primary (and only) media device? Where might there be gaps in your daily news experience?

The answers to these questions came to us us in a variety of ways as we began talking to our users. We watched digital natives walk through their daily news routines, asked for feedback on new product concepts and polled our audience at-scale to test many of our ongoing assumptions.

Here are a few insights from our first year of user research that have had direct implications for our product offering and brand evolution.

In the world of social, simple stands out.

What we’ve learned: Social timelines are filled with noise and people are constantly looking for ways to prioritize relevant information and focus on something they find interesting.

“It’s gotta catch my eye in order to check it out,” said Kurt, 27, an NYC-based marketer and TicToc follower. “I usually skim content in my Twitter Home feed more than I click through to links.”

We found there are few fundamental design qualities that signal to people that they should pay attention: clear captions, unfussy mobile-first UI, enticing titles and shortcuts like labels and tags help people to understand quickly if they should focus on a story or not. Getting these seemingly small elements right is essential in order to catch the attention of our busy audience.

How we’ve responded: As a media organization flush with high-quality video content, it’s easy to “copy and paste” segments made for larger screens to our small-screen audiences. With TicToc, we take a different approach. Our design template is exclusively for cross-platform video content and it prioritizes the insights and best practices learned from our research. To help keep our teams honest, the template and style guides are relentlessly critiqued and continue to evolve with the help of a multidisciplinary team that provides ongoing feedback on our videos based on performance and engagement.

Before (above): The first frame of a TicToc video originally posted in early 2018 opens with a large-screen aspect ration. The still image tells audiences this story is about Amazon, but does little else to signal what’s ahead and what’s being covered in this piece.

After (above): Following a redesign effort led by designer Dylan Greif, the opening screen is less cluttered and introduces the story with a provocative prompt, followed by narrative captions that tell the story in a more conversational manner — all presented in a mobile-friendly square aspect ratio.

Shorter is better.

What we’ve learned: Data shows us that, beyond good content, shorter videos of a minute or less generally tend to outperform longer pieces on Twitter. We’ve seen this demonstrated in countless in-person studies: People fidget, they yawn and get the itch to keep scrolling around the 30-second mark. Their verbal queues are even more clear:

“Where’s this video going? This feels too long for my phone. I’m tempted to just skip through this.”

Users want small bites of content and a sense of the big picture conversation around the news.They aren’t looking to watch lengthy documentaries on social. But less time spent shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of the story. Shorter content — done well — can still deliver a perspective or an insight that gets to the essence of a story, quickly.

How we’ve responded: The Key Frame is TicToc’s short, often 30-second or less story on a single topic or event. (Imagine: A wide-angle shot of Parisians celebrating France’s World Cup victory in the moments following their last goal.) At its heart, Key Frames encapsulate an entire story in a brief, nutrient-rich window and bring you into the most important moment of that news story. And because we know it’s vital to capture our audience’s attention in the initial few seconds of a post, Key Frames intentionally incorporate essential pieces of a story in the first 10 seconds of a video. They also rely on minimal editing, allowing a news moment to unfold and speak for itself, what TicToc GM Jean Ellen Cowgill describes as a “visual quote.”

(Above) At its heart, the TicToc Key Frame is designed to pull users in through content that stands on its own. It’s short, usually around 30-seconds, and gives users an opportunity to experience a piece of news for themselves.

Break the fourth wall — build an intimate connection to the story.

What we’ve learned: From celebrity testimonials to Youtube tutorials, digital natives are used to having personalities and hosts converse with them as opposed to speaking to them. Our user feedback speaks to a correlative shift in people’s expectations for how news stories should also be told.

“I prefer news to not be competing with the presenter or being colored by the presenter,” said Whit, 33, a banking analyst. “I want the content to be the focal point.”

That doesn’t mean personalities don’t have a place in video storytelling, however. What people are looking for is content that feels relatable and true to the platforms on which it’s presented. TicToc audiences are looking for expert voices, first-hand testimonials, and stories that come direct from the source rather than from traditional newscasts. What they don’t want to see is talking heads who simply comment on the latest headline. News experiences that feel more genuine create a deeper connection with audiences who expect conversational intimacy in their online experiences.

How we’ve responded: “Down the Barrel” is a format that TicToc producers have increasingly made use of in new ways in recent months. Rather than traditional TV broadcasts where a host might actually look past the camera, giving an omniscient quality to a broadcast, TicToc hosts and interview subjects are increasingly looking directly at the camera, or down the barrel of the lens, giving users a sense that they’re being spoken to directly. In the best execution of these videos, the user might even walk away feeling like they’ve learned something from a helpful friend or had a conversation with the person on their screen.

(Above) TicToc’s “Down the Barrel” approach to storytelling focuses on building intimacy and connection with the user in order to make the news feel and sound more relatable. This story, about two parents who are allowing their child to choose their gender identity, is a great example of letting a story unfold straight from the source.

In a news promiscuous world, meet people where they are.

What we’ve learned: Our audience plays the news field — engaging with multiple sources, hopping between platforms — pulling together a cohesive news diet in bits and pieces throughout their day. For many, how we engage with these news shifts depends on context and mindset.

To paint a very general picture of this thinking: mornings are about setting the stage (“What have I missed?); commutes are optimal for going in-depth (“Give me something to sink my teeth into.”); end of work-day provides an opportunity to make sense of pertinent news and developments (“What’s my perspective on today’s news?”); and evening is often focused on leaning back and checking out of the news maelstrom (“I need to zone out. Let me dig into something that’s interesting to me personally.”)

People’s news needs, and the places they turn to meet those needs, change throughout the day. Product solutions that understand these intraday shifts will have an edge on meeting users’ needs at any given moment.

How we’ve responded: Building a news ecosystem is something that comes to mind when our design and product team think about the TicToc news experience. Since launch, the team has made strides to authentically connect our brand to our audience, across devices. In the morning, our TicToc newsletter, podcast and WhatsApp digests help people prepare for the news day ahead and our Twitter feed provides a continuous stream of newsworthy stories and information that followers can access throughout their work day, and evening. Beyond social, this year TicToc content makes its way to 500 screens in 30 airports. We also just launched a new website TicToc.video. Both efforts join a growing roster of product offerings that help us meet people where they are.

As TicToc stretches its reach into a broader news ecosystem, we’re working on ways improve to how people get their news in specific moments. This year we’ve kicked off several research initiatives to learn more about the evolving needs and habits of our audience.

We’d love to hear more about what your teams are doing to keep users at the forefront — you can drop me a line via Twitter or here on Medium.

(Thanks to Jean Ellen Cowgill, Dylan Greif and Jessica Rifkind for their insights and contributions to this post.)

BHIVE is Bloomberg Media’s human-centered research and prototyping group. We make meaningful experiences that define the future of media.


User insights and stories from Bloomberg Media’s innovation…

Karen Johnson

Written by

Head of Design Research at Bloomberg Media. Former journalist, urbanist and UX product leader.



User insights and stories from Bloomberg Media’s innovation lab

More From Medium

More on News from BHIVE

Also tagged User Experience

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade