Lost in a news story? Appy Helper brings you up to speed

Appy Helper prototype’s proposal (screenshot from the final presentation)

When stories like the Panama Papers, Brexit or the crisis in Syria play out over months, even years, it’s easy for readers to lose track of events. A universal problem for newsrooms today is to keep readers engaged as the story develops, simplify its complexities, make sure the reader always has context. The 2017 Editors Lab Final had 16 teams set to solve this problem — how to make it easy for readers to follow complex news stories, and, well, ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.

Teams from 14 countries battled for the “World Cup of Newsroom Innovation” in an intense two-day hackathon, among media’s best minds at the GEN Summit in Vienna. The winning prototype was (drumroll, please!) by the UK’s BBC Visual Journalism team: a conversational interface called Appy Helper.

The BBC team — Joy Raxos, Nassos Stylianou and Alvin Ourrad — said that while there isn’t a lack of good explainer content online, it’s often hard to locate when you’ve landed on a news story. Also, everyone, regardless of knowledge level, is fed the same explainer.

Screenshots of the Appy Helper prototype

Appy Helper sits within a complicated news story. If you’ve landed on a piece about, say, the Trump-Russia enquiry, but find yourself struggling to recall who Jeff Sessions, James Comey or Michael Flynn is, or even if you don’t know what the investigation is about in the first place, help is at hand. A simple blue band hovers over the story, asking, ‘Have you been following the Trump-Russia inquiry? Tap to explore full context’.

When you tap the band, an ‘Explore Story’ page opens up. Here, you’ll see the latest development in this long-running, developing story, and a short explanation of what the issue is. Now, you have two options. If you have some knowledge of the story and missed just a few bits, there’s a quick ‘Catch me up on recent developments’ button that will take you through recent updates in short chunks, in a text-style format. You can ask for more information if needed.

The second option is for disengaged users who are visiting the issue with no prior knowledge. If you hit ‘Explore full story’, a timeline of events will play out, also in text style, with two messages (or event summaries) at a time so that you’re not overwhelmed. You can click ‘What happened next?’ once you’re done reading those to receive two more, and so on. Alternatively, you can skip straight to the most recent event. Once you’re satisfied, hit the ‘I’m all caught up’ button to go back to the original article that you were reading, to process it with your newly gained understanding of the larger issue.

“We felt very strongly that readers should have context available right on the article that they are reading, and we’re happy that the jury agreed with this approach,” said Alvin Ourrad, the team’s developer. “We want to make it easy for readers to seek explanations and make the news-reading experience less inundating. We look forward to implementing the prototype as soon as possible.”


About the Editors Lab programme

The GEN Editors Lab programme is a worldwide series of hackathons hosted by leading news organisations such as BBC, The Huffington Post and El País. Editors Lab brings together developers, journalists and designers from top newsrooms to build news prototypes during an intensive two-day competition. In just four years, GEN has organised more than 70 hackathons in 30 countries.