“I don’t think you can be in business for 162 years if you weren’t innovating all the way along.” As Global Head of Multimedia & Interactive Innovation at Reuters, Jassim Ahmad knows something about innovation. Though for him, innovation is just a buzzword. “Innovation is a term which we use a lot but, frankly, it’s a part of making sure you are still relevant and people still want to pay for your services, whatever business you’re in.”
Staying relevant is the key challenge facing the entire news industry at the moment. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have completely revolutionised the way news is delivered, and hardware platforms — tablets, smartphones — have changed how consumers interact with that news. But Jassim doesn’t view this as a challenge so much as an opportunity to rethink the role of news in people’s lives. “You understand that people are using these platforms for a reason and you have to really think about how you can make sure you’re relevant on these platforms,” he says.
The Wider Image is Reuters’, and Jassim’s, attempt to deliver news in a way that is relevant to the platform, in this case the iPad. [Editor’s note: Reuters’ entry to the CEA awards was for The Wider Image iPad app. They have since released a responsive web based version.] The app puts photography at the heart of the story and is designed to leverage the unique characteristics of the iPad to create a cinematic storytelling experience that brings the user closer to the story.
Jassim shared the story of The Wider Image with us at Reuters’ offices in Canary Wharf. He talks in a measured, calming voice, “We entertained the possibility of creating a project that would prepare us to evolve visual journalism at Reuters for the future. So we went away and we thought about all the problems that we wanted to solve, the things that we wanted to do better, the things that we aspired to. We also followed some instincts, our experience of the industry both from the technology side and the editorial side and we developed this idea as a proposal.”
“A lot of projects which have a large technology component start to get very far away from content.”
After receiving approval from stakeholders, Jassim locked himself away and sketched out a number of ideas of how the idea could manifest itself, took the ideas to stakeholders for approval and sketched out more ideas. Then the team started to test, but rather than testing the app’s user experience, they were testing the content. “A lot of projects which have a large technology component start to get very far away from content,” Jassim explains, “You see a lot of technology companies making great products but then you use them and see they suffer in content.”
For a company whose core business is producing content, this wasn’t an option for Jassim. “But it’s very hard to know what you’re doing with the story if you’re not clear about the platform,” he says. “So we had sketched out what we wanted to develop, but we wanted to validate that. That meant working with journalists to produce stories.”
From Jassim’s sketches the team had around 15 different formats they testing. “If a story is about time it could be interesting to see a before and after. So we worked with archive footage and matched it up with new images and compared the two. We went back into the archives of photographers to look for sequences. We interviewed photographers to develop more in depth profiles. So we were testing a lot of different things, some things we used some things we threw away.”
Jassim’s team picked a handful of photographers to work with during this testing. “In any group of people, there’s always those people who want to try new things. So we picked a few people in different locations and did some test projects. That was how we made sure we validated our ideas,” he says.
Then followed three months of user experience design and nine months of development. All the time the team were testing with users, learning, iterating. “It’s something which is petrifying at the same time as being very humbling when you put something in front of real people and see how they use it and how it’s different from your expectations,” says Jassim.
This user experience testing was particularly important as the unfamiliar nature of the iPad app proved a mixed blessing. “We wanted to really push the experience to be significantly different,” says Jassim. “We started as an iPad app and we asked ourselves, ‘How can this application be different from not just print, but also the web experience. How do we make the most of the device and the OS to make something distinctive?’”
“The users were just tapping everywhere, they were tapping all over the place. They weren’t tapping this huge icon in the centre. They were willing, particularly the younger ones, to take the risk of trying anything. So they tapped at the top, the bottom, tried to swipe.”
While iPads and other tablets have been with us for a while, apps do not have the same conventions that have evolved in other digital experiences like the web. Tablets are used for everything from playing games to writing emails, to watching movies, to reading books and each time, the format is different and the user experience can be wildly different. While this made the iPad the perfect platform for creating a unique experience, it proved problematic during testing. “I remember one of our first user testing labs that was literally just us with a load of users and a load of tablets, one by one,” says Jassim. “We had a script and we sat down with them and we watched how they used it and asked them to perform certain tasks. We were looking at the ‘before and after’ format — literally just two images, a very clear format that’s actually existed for a long time in digital — and we had designed for this format to be interacted with in what we thought was a very clear way. But the users were just tapping everywhere, they were tapping all over the place. They weren't tapping this huge icon in the centre. They were willing, particularly the younger ones, to take the risk of trying anything. So they tapped at the top, the bottom, tried to swipe. We learned that you had to be prepared to handle every possible scenario.”
Fortunately for Jassim and his team, they were given a large amount of freedom to experiment. “We were lucky that our stakeholders put a lot of faith in us,” he says, “This is something that has actually really changed in the company; there has been a big recognition about what the role of innovation is to grow the company.”
This shift is demonstrated in The Wider Image says Jassim, “The app is, externally, a great experience, a great way of getting the best experience from Reuters, a lot of forward thinking. Internally, it’s actually a catalyst for changing the way we tell stories. By establishing these formats we’ve been able to go back to our journalists and say, ‘You are storytellers, this is your toolkit. Use the tools that make sense for the job and then come back with your work and we will present it in the best possible way.” While the app provides a wonderful interface for readers, it is also improving Reuters’ core business. “All of our content development is for the benefit of our clients in every language, in every country all over the world.”
Reuters, the news division of Thomson Reuters, is truly a global company. “I’ve worked with people for thirteen years and never met them face to face,” says Jassim. This impacted the team working on The Wider Image who were not a dedicated innovation team. “We picked people from across the organisation, begged, borrowed and stole their resources. You don’t have the luxury of stopping people from what they’re already doing, you’re borrowing people’s time. And these [projects] which are riskier — failure is sometimes very likely — you need to convince people and bring them along with you.”
This proved one of the biggest challenges for Jassim on this project. “It’s not like their manager has told them to do it, you’re inviting someone to give extra time and energy so it’s above and beyond what they already do. That’s quite hard.” Communication within this international company was also difficult to keep on top of. “It’s hard,” says Jassim, “while your managing all these moving pieces, all these different people in different teams, to make sure everybody knows what’s going on. Communicating is, I think, a big challenge. Particularly when you’re trying to keep things lean, without having a dedicated person responsible, you are all responsible for making sure people know what’s going on.”
Keeping the project lean was more a necessity due to limited budget than a conscious decision. “It’s lean in the sense that the core team was lean,” says Jassim. “But lots of people had their hand in small things. It’s all the elements you don’t think of when you start a project. For instance, you need a privacy statement, so a lawyer will work with you for a couple of hours on that small piece. But multiply that across hundreds of things, hundreds of aspects of the product and a lot of people are involved from beginning to end.
“I don’t think we could have done it without all those different people being involved,” Jassim continues. “Yes, you want to reduce the number of stakeholders because that makes decision making much faster. But we would have struggled without their help. I’m sure we could have done it better and next time we’ll improve upon it.”
“We did not develop the idea at the beginning by asking users what they wanted. We started with our ideas and instincts.”
“This was a really fun project,” says Jassim, “None of us expected it to be as large as it was. But sometimes you need a project like that where you give yourselves the liberty to push an idea out as big as it possibly can be before pulling it back in and making it concrete.” Then he changes tact. “Part of me says I should be less ambitious at the beginning of a project because you have this big idea and then you have to reign it in, which is quite painful.” He pauses. “I think actually it’s good to let it be very free at the beginning.”
“I was looking back at my original ideas, there were a lot of things we wanted to do at the beginning that we weren’t able to do,” he says. “We’ve been working on a big new release for several months, we’ve been cooking away. So as well as putting a focus on launching a responsive site which is now on every platform, the new version of the app will have a number of additional features which will help the end user achieve a lot of the things that they told us they want to. To make sure they can reach the best stories, that they can make connections between what they’re interested in, and there’s this growing archive of content that we have produced, so we’re excited about getting that out of the door.”
Jassim seems visibly excited that this new version of the app responds to user feedback. “We look at feedback all the time and we had a lot,” he says. “You never really know whether you’ve imagined that something is going to be good or if it is going to work. So we were so fortunate to get 1000s of emails, tweets, the whole mix. As well as that we grab anyone — professionals and people who are not working in our field — and we watch them use our UX and we ask them questions. We do surveys directly through the application and even those have incredibly high participation.”
This is in stark contrast to the initial development of The Wider Image which had a more Apple-esque approach. “We did not develop the idea at the beginning by asking users what they wanted. We started with our ideas and instincts.” This seems to have been the right call when trying to make such an original experience. The app has certainly been successful, winning numerous awards and being featured as iTune’s Editor’s Choice in over 100 countries as well as being Reuters’ second most downloaded app.
“I think what made it successful is the combination of really good stories — you can make the best product in the world, if you haven’t got good stories no one is going to come to it — with a very thoroughly thought out process about how you bring those stories closer to the user, and exceptional consideration for the UX,” says Jassim. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a product where we thought so much about what that should be. We’ve thought about how visual information, visuals and information, sit together to bring the user closer to the story.”
The Wider Image shows how painstaking attention to detail is the key to creating a great customer experience. Jassim and his team prove that a large, global organisation doesn’t have to have a dedicated team to produce innovation. If you can energise a team, bring them along with you on a great product, they will be happy to do the work on top of their day jobs. This way of working can have benefits for the business as a whole, says Jassim, “When you pull people out of their teams and expose them to people from other teams, they not only improve the project but they take away some understanding of the other people. As human beings, we know what we know and we’re sceptical of other areas, other professions. So by connecting with others everyone takes away some understanding. Editorial people learn about design, design people learn about content, technology and design interact together. For me personally, I learnt a lot which I can’t pin down in a sentence, but lots of things which you take to the next thing you do.”
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