When local news consumption becomes addictive

The relevancy of content

Magnus Engström
May 27, 2018 · 13 min read

CHAPTER TWO: creating routines and building loyalty.

This is the second part in a series of blog posts on digital news product and the relevancy of content. Read part one here.

In the previous blog post I wrote about how local news consumption correlates to information need, describing how most users feel the need for keeping up to date with local news, and feel rewarded when relevant information is consumed.

In this article I will dive deeper into how the feeling of need (in regards of local news) drives consistent user behavior.

To fall back on past experiences

Think of the following scenario: You are walking along a street and start to hear sirens. The sounds gets higher and higher, and suddenly you are passed by several rushing fire trucks and police cars. When you look at the horizon in the direction the cars are headed you can clearly make out a large rising pillar of black smoke. You immediately feel the need for information about what is happening. What do you do?

How you choose to act in the scenario above depends on what routines and habits you have formed. Since you had no advance notice about what is happening, you will have to rely on past experiences from other times when you have felt the urge for news.

If you have no prior knowledge about local news services, you will not default to using one in this instance. You might do a online search to see what publishers sites are available, but more likely you will turn to other channels long before doing that. On the other hand, if you visits a local news site or use a mobile news application daily there is a high probability that you will use that product as a starting point when you suddenly find yourself in need of news.

In other words, we all have some kind of training for this this type of scenario, but chances are that we do not think of it as training but rather just as our standard ways to keep up with current events.

Rewards

Before we look closer at how past behaviour defines future actions we should in this context redefine information need as something that we can chain a behavior to. How a need for something actually feels differs from person to person, and in the end it all comes down to how (and in what form) we get rewarded when the need is satisfied.

The reward for filling a need is central in trying to understand how a person behaves. To learn how to expect someone’s behavior when in need of information is to truly approach the development of news services from a user perspective.

If we step outside from the subject of news consumption for a while, there are several fields of science that center around how rewards are perceived. The brain always deals with pleasure the same way, no matter if the subject in focus is thr study of a drug addiction, learning about Pavlov’s Dogs or trying to understand narcissism. This is called the pleasure principle and what it basically says is that brain is quick to adapt through a learning process when something feels rewarding. This approach is also used in data science where machine learning algorithms are trained using functions giving reward or punishment depending on how good the system is able to learn from a dataset.

Returning to the scenario with the passing fire trucks, the actions you take to get information are entirely defined by what you want to achieve by learning about what is happening. If your mind wanders towards anxiety, wondering if someone you know is involved in the fire you will continue to search for information until you trust that no one you know is in danger or harmed. Your brain will continuously reward you for increasing that confidence.

Signals

Feeling a need is the starting point in the quest for earning a reward, and to get that reward the individual will need to perform certain actions. If we define taking action as a process of creating habits then the feeling of need is often referenced to as a signal, and this signal is what gets the habit forming process going.

In academic litteratur the signal is often described as a cue

Once again, the passing firetrucks in the scenario above might be enough to give the signal for searching information, but it might also be “artificially” triggered by a publisher sending a push notification to the users smartphone. In many cases the signal can also be an effect of a accumulated experience and trigger only after reaching a tipping point, for example when you have seen an advertisement enough times or when several friends have shared the same content over social media.

In the habit forming process the starting point is a signal.

Activating neurons

Ones there is a signal, the brain will start to focus on achieving a set goal (fulfilling a need). When we say that the mind is focusing, what is really happening is that a set of neurons start firing together resulting in a signal that sets of the quest for information.

A short detour: Neurons explainedThe central nervous system is responsible for taking input and making sense of it. For example, when you look at something the visual data your eyes collect is transformed to electric pulses (there are also chemicals involved, but we will leave that out for now) and sent to the central nervous system. As the name implies, this part of the brain deals with nerves, and that is why the eye is sending data through something called an optical nerve. The brain cells that are responsible for handling the data are called nerve cells, or neurons. Neurons are chained together in a network, and depending what you are looking at different parts of the network will take part in trying to understand the data provided.But what does any of this have to do with searching for local news?The thing is that neurons have a built in memory. After a while, if certain neurons work especially well together they will learn to fast forward information to the decision making part of the brain. These learning networks of neurons are called neural networks. If that sounds familiar that is because one of the main fields in machine learning is trying to replicate this functionality, and thereby building systems that are able to learn the same way a person is.Imagine that you decide to become a goalkeeper in soccer, and you start to practice every day. After a while the neurons will adapt and shorten the processing time it takes to look at a ball flying through the air and calculate how to move your arm to catch it. This is called a reflex, and that basically means that there is very little thought behind your action (note: actually, a reflex is not entirely the right term to use here, understanding reactions is a deep subject.). The same thing is also true for formulation a behavior to handle information need. If the brain have past experiences of finding relevant information (rewarding the need) using certain actions (pick up your phone, open the news app, check the latest news tab) that will also be the first instinct in a new scenario. The neural network in your brain will default to whatever actions that are most likely to reward you the fastest. The time it takes to actually form a habit can differ a lot depending on the individual and the context, but generally it can take a couple of months before a special behavior is a part of the day to day cycle.
Image take from Cloud Reassembly RPI.

Drawing conclusions and taking action

Once the brain starts to process the signal some type of activity is to follow. Depending on the context some of the actions can be entirely internal, taking place within the brain itself.

For example, if you are witnessing an event you might be able to piece together what you are experiencing just by using your own logic and rationality. In your mind, you might be asking the same question over and over while adding more and more conclusions along the way. “Why did that car hit that pedestrian?”.

A self rewarding process, where the user is able to feel rewarded without using any products to interact with.

In programming terms this would be called a recursive action, in layman terms described as a function that keeps building upon itself. In this case, this means that if you are able to fully grasp the situation you might find your own conclusion sufficeable for the current information need. This is especially true in cases when you are really not that interested. However, this might soon be followed by another need, working as signal to drive you towards searching for a backstory to the event in hope of validating your conclusion.

Searching for answers

Having relevant facts memorized and being able to draw conclusions from past experiences certainly affects how you define the need for local news. If something tend to happen often your need for detailed information regarding the event may decrease. However, a key part of labeling something as news is taking into account that the published content describes something that is somewhat unusual (warranting the content to be published), meaning that the average consumer will not be able to ”guess” the information provided.

The signal that drives you towards searching for information will often result in a somewhat physical chain of actions. If the information is not already stored in your memory you must rely on your audiovisual senses to access new information.

Even if you have a strong feeling of exactly what you are looking for the information you search for will not just appear out of thin air in front of you. For now we are constrained to relying on different types of interfaces that takes physical input and returns information. Today this interface is most commonly accessed through a smartphone.

A short detour: The future of interfacesA few centuries ago the best way to access relevant community news, from a reliable source, was to travel to church every Sunday and sit through hours of ceremony in hope of also getting some relevant information delivered from the priest. Today a large part of the worlds population can access just about any piece of information at will, only by using small hand gestures.As mentioned above, for now we are constrained to using (external) devices to access information. It is easy to think that the smartphone as of today also will be a key technology in the future, but that is probably very much the case of applying a short term perspective on a long timescale. The connected screen device is nearly an ends to a mean, helping the individual to leap from being stationary to access information on the go.Today we are already starting to see a shift in how people are using online services, for example using smart home assistants without relying on screens to rely information. But there are also several ongoing projects with large fundings doing research and experimentation on how to move past the device all together, trying to design products that adapt directly to the human brain without having any additional layers of interactions between the user and the service. Facebook is, amongst others, currently doing research aimed at reading neuron activity using sensors placed on the head. Going further, the Elon Musk financed company NeuralLink have put their focus on developing technology intended for intrusive brain integration.

Arriving at the doorstep

Right now, brain integration is still a highly hypothetical way of doing content distribution, and to reach the audience the common news publisher is still depending on that if the product provided (most often a site or an mobile app) is easy enough to use the user will interact with it on a daily basis. This is the reason that a publisher decides to develop a news application in the first place, betting on that sooner or later a need for information will drive users towards the product.

Comparing product development to the inner working of the human mind might sound like a far fetched comparison, but in its purest form interaction design strives to make things as intuitive as possible. If something feels ”natural” to its user it may be regarded as a somewhat extension of the mind. Moving your tongue feels extremely natural, since the muscles involved have been directly connected to the nerve center since your body formed. But to speak your native language also feels fully natural, even though you did not have any presets regarding which language to speak when you were born. The language is basically a interface you have mastered so that you can distribute information to the people around you.

Using a digital news service is of course (to most people) a harder task than taking part in a short everyday conversation. But the difference between those activities is not actually as large as it first may seem. In both cases information retrieval is often the driving factor behind the interaction. As mentioned earlier, all rewards are handled the same way by the the brain. The same thing is also to a large extent true for how information is collected and stored. If the interfaces we use are intuitive enough the thought process leading up to using them will fade into a routine behavior.

The blueprint for building routine behavior: when the user feels the need for local news, make sure that the the engagement returns a higher reward using your product than any other news service.

Engineering for habits

To drive the user towards adopting routines around using your product means that you are taking a responsibility. Tristan Harris held the position as design ethicist at Google for several years, and have been called ”the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” by the Atlantic Magazine. In the Wired article Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones he is talking about how digital products takes control of our behavior, and is quoted saying “The premise of hijacking is that it undermines your control. This system is better at hijacking your instincts than you are at controlling them”.

The Fogg Model

One of the most referenced (and most applied) models of habit forming is the Fogg Behavioural Model, created by BJ Fogg. This model states that a product or service should provide three things for a user to start a habit forming process:

  1. Motivation
  2. Ability
  3. Trigger

The Hook Model

In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products the author Nir Eyal expand on this model to provide his own model, the Hooked model. Since products like a mobile phone application can use push notifications to communicate with its user the habit forming process can be fined tuned by adapting to user interactions. Eyal takes this into account to shorten the gap between interaction design and behavioural psychology.

The Hooked model is presented in four steps:

The Hook Model, from Nir Eyal (nirandfar.com)
  1. Trigger (through external communication or by an internal process in the mind of the user)
  2. Action (interaction with the interface)
  3. Variable Reward (the reward for doing the interaction)
  4. Investment (what can the user do to get a higher reward next time?)

Success might be encoded within the model. For example: viral growth of the user base can be achieved if the user likes the product and the fourth steps prompts for sharing progress on social media.

A cause for caution

The blueprint for how to build addicting products that after being used for awhile hides the required interactions within the subconscious parts of the mind is well known by now. This is used for good and evil by millions of product developers, and (like Tristan Harris argues) we need to be cautious about what the consequences are.

After some time of usage a well designed product is frequently able to trigger a starting signal for the user to engage with the product. The initial need of information (written about in part one) is thereby constantly reinforced.

Summary

To run a successful news service the goal of the products provided should be that they are frequently used by its users. The most effective way to have an active user base is to make the users routinely come back to the service.

A routine is chain reaction of activity that happens when a person is compelled to act upon a recurring need.

There are specific brain processes that deals with when a need is present. A need is always connected to an expected reward, and a person might take action to satisfy a need if this reward is considered high enough to strive for. If a need (and the connected hope of a reward) is strong enough the tipping point that leads to a person acting on the need is called a signal or a cue.

Whenever a need is satisfied the brain will remember how this was achieved, and the next time the same situation presents itself there is a high probability that the same actions will be taken as before. After a while, if a certain set of actions (a behavior) keeps returning the expected reward, a person might start to do things more or less autonomously when presented with a need. When this happens a routine have been established.

News products of today requires input in form of interactions to return information. As of today, there is a high probability that that interface by which the news will be consumed is presented on a screen, and that the device on to which the screen is attached to is very close at hand.

Going forward

If we would divide the activity leading up to news consumption we would end up with two distinct steps. A device is used to open up the relevant news service and thereafter the interface of the service is navigated to access information. This of course sounds extremely obvious, but if we choose to dive deeper into the actions leading up to a piece of news being consumed there are several important aspects of the user behavior for us to dissect. In the next blog post we will try to understand how relevancy and demand of engagement affects the users willingness to use a news service.


Magnus Engström is Head of Data Strategy at MittMedia — Sweden’s leading group publisher of community news brands in Sweden.

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Thanks to Katarina Ellemark

Magnus Engström

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Vad händer i Mittmedia?

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