Stephen Jefferson
Aug 9 · 13 min read

The impact of bad UX for news and lessons from new approaches trying to fix it.

Photo by Mary Lennox

Are new and innovative designs and technologies for news doomed by mistakes from its past? Will news websites be able to catch up as tech giants push the standards for user experience? In this post, you’ll find two insights gleaned from focus groups with a dozen residents from San Diego who elaborated on reasons for their behaviors for reading and engaging with news online today.

As much as newsrooms are committed to producing good journalism for local communities, their genuine intentions don’t always transfer over to their editorial designs and experiences online. As I would hear from residents during the focus groups, bad reading experiences are having a deeper influence on their patience and engagement with the news. One told us,

“They’re trying to feed you stuff and it becomes distracting, irrelevant, and even more frustrating. I rarely sit in front of a computer now because of it.”

In response to today’s urgency for tomorrow’s paycheck, newsrooms’ decisions in digital are typically prioritized to reach immediate gains despite the toll taken on user experience. These decisions overpower and sacrifice approaches that aim for long-term sustainability like decluttering reading experiences and nurturing reader loyalty. I’ve seen this first-hand at Bloom with the lack of appreciation to correctly structure news data, and now, from the focus groups, I see more evidence on how the same types of neglect are causing unintuitive or traumatic reading experiences.

I’m sure we’ve all cringed at the irrelevant third-party content feeds like Outbrain or Taboola or the constantly-impeding advertisements and popups. These quick-buck approaches have turned out to be not as visually or literarily valuable as the revenue returned nor underlying impact produced. I think we can all agree that no amount of money is worth these negative shifts in perception and frustration that are becoming embedded within readers’ minds. But how far will these decisions go before the negative perceptions become irreversible? Is it already too late?

In such a dire industry today, publishers feel they have no other choice…

Peter Block, a writer on organizational and communal transformation, outlined a decade ago how industries can become shallow-focused on their capabilities. He states that real transformation cannot be made from “minor improvements” but rather from a “shift in context”:

“For anything important to shift, context needs to shift… This [current] conversation is about minor improvements, making what is not working cheaper and more available. These conversations will not create an alternative future. To oversimplify, we are asking the wrong questions. They are not changing the nature of the system.”

However, even with 2019’s uptick in funding for innovation in local news (Facebook, Google, et al.) and the passionate energy of startups focused on shifting the context, the task of building new solutions now also requires combatting the existing negative perceptions of news experiences that most of us have acquired. To change the nature of the system, all up-and-coming approaches need to not just look at fixing what’s on the surface but also to the interconnected problems that have seeped into the foundation.

Fortunately, the discussions in our focus groups about personal frustrations ultimately led to their underlying reasoning, a hint at the interconnected problems. This led our findings to be clear at first glance, yet complex after we asked and synthesized why their behaviors have come to be.

With this in mind, let’s dive into the focus groups and UX lessons.

A few weeks ago, my flight arrived in sunny airy San Diego, quite the opposite from the sunny humidity-clogged DC I departed from at 3 am that morning. I would spend the next few days in San Diego helping to conduct focus groups to learn how residents and students experience local news.

Luckily, the dialogue with the participants would turn out to be as strikingly diverse as the weather. The generational habits of the young and old would be blatantly nestled at their prospective boundaries, while their current perspectives would swirl with commonalities and differences from their seemingly-traumatic past news experiences.

The focus groups were a cap to a semester-long collaborative program between location tech start-up Bloom Labs, local newsroom NBC 7 San Diego, and a journalism class at San Diego State University (SDSU). Throughout this past spring semester, students from SDSU were trained to report, publish, and geotag a news story of their liking about something happening in San Diego. One student who was interested in sports covered a story about local college football while others reported on the success of local high school musicians and historic developments in nearby Balboa Park. After most of the stories were published with NBC, we saw an opportunity to get feedback from the community about the coverage and user experiences that were created.

We selected six participants for each of the two focus groups who turned out to get along very well together for the entire 90 minutes despite their noticeable diversity in viewpoints, neighborhoods, and news preferences. The first group included SDSU students, 18 to 25 years old, who were currently studying or had recently graduated. The second group included older residents, 40 to 60 years old, who have lived in San Diego from anywhere between one to over 10 years.

Each group ran through two scenarios for searching and reading news stories on their mobile phone. Along with instructing specific tasks and asking a few related questions, the sessions were kept open for other questions and unexpected tangents. This structured yet informal way of moderating turned out beneficial as we regularly encountered strides of personal feedback about the participants’ intentions, expectations, and frustrations.

A ton of insight was gathered but two lessons uniquely stood out:

  1. User Input: The expectations for searching local content are… higher than I expected.
  2. Animation Blindness: The experience of in-motion advertisements has created traumatic long-term effects for almost anything that moves.

Lesson 1: Raising The Bar for User Input

Expectations for searching local content

For the two-story scenarios in each group, the participants were instructed to go to a starting website on their mobile phone and then find a story using the available search methods. The first scenario was with NBC 7’s website or mobile app (if the participant already had it), which gave options to search by keyword or browse a list of recent news on the homepage. The second scenario was with Bloom’s local search plugin that gave options to search by location or browse a list of news near their current location. When they arrived on the starting page, we told them the title of the news story to search for, which was one published from the SDSU program.

I, along with two moderators from SDSU and NBC, waited, listened, and watched as they went through their way of finding the story for each scenario. After they did, we instructed them to put their phone down so we could ask questions. This was quite fascinating and nerve-racking — the hmm’s, the grunts, the sighs were aplenty.

Both methods of searching turned out to have their pros and cons. However, the difference between age groups was most insightful. All of the young students found the story at least 30 seconds faster with location search compared to keyword search, but older residents stumbled 4 minutes slower with location search compared to keyword search.

Bloom’s local search plugin

After this initial task, our first question to them was: “Walk us through how you went from the starting page to the article.”

Responses from Older Participants

Most of the older participants seemed to either ignore or misinterpret the labels on the search forms, which confused them in both scenarios. Some told us they were hesitant to use the keyword search on NBC because it simply said “Search” and they weren’t sure if it searched for pages or stories.

“I don’t know if I’m [searching the pages] or searching for news on the site.”

The peak of their confusion came during the location search on Bloom. Despite the label saying “Search by Address or Zip Code,” the purpose of the search field simply just did not register with them at all.

“So, this has lost me right now. It’s asking me for an address or a zip code…”

They acknowledged that the label was legible, some even reading it out loud, but many of them still mistakenly typed the full title of the story.

Their instinct was that the search fields would accept anything.

Thankfully, the location search algorithm picked up the location in the title and correctly generated results. However, like a domino effect, the order of the search results by distance would also catch them off guard.

Responses from Younger Participants

Younger participants didn’t have any trouble searching by location as they simply typed the location mentioned in the story title (“SDSU”) or used the button to browse news by their current location, which was a few miles from the campus. Their experience was opposite from the older participants, the generational habit was too obvious.

“I typed in ‘SDSU’ and then the article popped up.”

“By pressing the ‘News Near Me’ button… and I scrolled down to the one that said the headline”

According to research, using maps and searching for things nearby have become habitual, at least for the younger generation, and blended in with our daily routines and behaviors. For example, when in need of a ride, we may tap our favorite rideshare app where it will immediately show us a map of nearby drivers as we type in the location of our destination and tap to give our current pick-up location — 3 location-based elements within a few seconds.

More common these days, technology knows our location without prompting us as most devices and apps require to permanently enable its GPS access. With this enabled, user experiences and instincts for using location features are simplifying over time. In 2017, Google found that our behaviors for searching by location have become expected, which is what we experienced with the older participants. People no longer mention “near me… because [they] know that the results will automatically be relevant to their location.” Additionally, Google’s geocoder, a tool to translate text into geographic coordinates, now allows for keywords like “Harvard University” or “Philz Coffee” instead of a formal street address like “123 Main Street”. And new efforts like Tagbox are experimenting with geocoding entire paragraphs, not just keywords.

Location search is becoming more sophisticated and the standards of its UX and acquired user habits are continuously evolving in parallel. The need to keep up seems it will always be present as the market for location technology continues to grow rapidly. If newsrooms with local content want to satisfy these habits and expectations, they must prioritize improvements to make their search more intuitive and intelligent.

At Bloom, we’ve now improved our labels to more simply state the purpose of the search fields (“Type a location”) and are planning to improve our algorithm to better handle keywords, not just location names or addresses.

Lesson 2: Animation Blindness

The post-traumatic effect of in-motion advertising

Once the stories were searched for and found, the participants were instructed to take a few minutes to read through them in their entirety on NBC. Afterward, we continued our discussion with questions about their first impression, reading experience, main elements taken away, and shareability, which all led to very insightful feedback for editorial and design.

During these questions, however, both groups veered off into a discussion about an interactive map that was embedded at the bottom of the story’s text. The map was provided by Bloom and populated with geotagged news stories from the SDSU program. Surprisingly, it was at this time when we learned how and why most participants were blinded from seeing the map and understanding its purpose.

“No [I didn’t see that before], I just saw it right now, how it keeps moving, interactive.”

This misunderstanding turned out not to be caused by the map itself but rather because of bad past experiences of forced exposure to animation that participants had with other features. Animated advertisements and auto-play videos have typically led to distracting or frustrating reading experiences, so people have naturally learned to block them out of focus.

“Initially it looked like an ad. I had no idea that it was an actual feature. I thought it was an ad because I’m bombarded with ads all the time. I just scrolled by it, didn’t even look at it.”

“Yeah, it’s a popup thing. Yeah, it’s an ad.”

“I thought it was actually an ad, something else and totally skipped it.”

“After seeing the ad at the top, I didn’t even register this map. I thought this was an ad as well.”

Known by psychologists since the 70s, this phenomenon is called inattentional blindness and defined as “a lack of expectation for the unattended stimulus.” The acquired effect explains how you unconsciously block out certain objects despite them being within sight.

Back in the 90s, as online advertising became widely adopted, an extension of this phenomenon became known as banner blindness, which was an imperative challenge that blinded visitors from seeing banner advertisements and similar-looking features.

“When we gain familiarity with a web page, we begin to distinguish various content and their locations, ultimately avoiding banner-like areas. Since the sizes of most banner ads fall in similar size ranges viewers tend to develop a tendency to ignore them without actually fixating on them.”

This happens to all of us offline as well.

“We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object.” As Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her book On Looking about the different ways we see city blocks, she continued “We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.”

A few decades ago, Jane Jacobs also assessed this mysterious phenomenon:

“We constantly make organized selections of what we consider relevant and consistent from among all the things that cross our senses. We discard, or tuck into some secondary awareness, the impressions that do not make sense for purposes of the moment…”

The interactive news map that few participants pointed out did animate automatically, panning from one story to the next. The moving effect triggered inattentional blindness in almost all young and old participants as they instinctively categorized it as an advertisement. The superficial usefulness for auto-animating features seemed to be slim to none.

Within a few seconds, other participants confessed that they had also categorized it as an ad or had missed it entirely. It wasn’t until we told the participants to spend a few seconds using the map that they began to realize it wasn’t an ad after all. Once they became familiar with its purpose of showcasing geotagged news stories, the map’s perceived uselessness flipped to be positive. Furthermore, they began advocating for it.

“Whoa, this is wild.”

“This is actually pretty fascinating.”

“It makes it easier to see exactly where it’s happening, where to stay cautious of.”

Some participants even began suggesting ways to position it more clearly.

“It would be cool to have a page just with that [map]. Where I could click on each story… I would probably go to that page… It adds the relevancy to me.”

This natural reversal of feedback about the map from negative to positive was surprising… and, since I was the map’s designer, things got more hopeful.

But fixing inattentional blindness is tough…

It seems like the overuse of animated advertisements have cursed any animating feature from this point forward. To learn how to reduce this blindness, I did some research and found three promising approaches:

1. Awareness of stimuli: “Once observers are made aware of the importance of the stimuli to be presented, for example stating that one will later be tested on it, the blindness phenomenon essentially disappeared.” I agree. This is exactly what we experienced!

2. Similarity between stimuli: “The more similar an unexpected object is to the attended object, the more likely it is to be perceived, thus reducing the chance of inattentional blindness.”

John Berger has interpreted this particular approach to change how we see art in museums and magazines in his 1972 BBC series, Ways of Seeing:

“The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it.”

3. Trust in content: More recently in July, World Media Group stated that higher-quality content was proven to bring more attention to display banner (+39%) and video (+22%) advertisements. Their findings show promise in a reduction in blindness over time as publishers industry-wide are putting more strategic thinking into listening to their audience and reporting stories that they appreciate more.

Moving forward with the map, I understand that improvements need to be made but I’m not sure what that will look like yet. I plan to work closely with publishers to discuss and experiment with these strategies.

Keeping up with evolving user perceptions

I flew back to DC later in the week, transcribing our recordings on the plane while coincidingly reliving the moments as I listened and pondered the connections happening between all of the experiences.

After putting together the conclusions as written in this article, I understand it’s possible to move forward with practical changes to improve the user experiences and perceptions. However, both of the issues we found are not static. They likely didn’t exist a few years ago and they can certainly change over the next few years as well. The nature of their networked influence makes it unpredictable to know what intuitive design will require in the future. As popular content services bring even more sophistication to search experiences and websites continue to seek new tricky ways of using advertisements, the issues we encountered will only deepen and become more challenging to resolve.

The two lessons about user input and animation, like many UX lessons, emphasize the importance of meeting the user where they are. To not just design for them to simply complete an action but to understand and respect the position of their existing perception and habits as well — that is, human-centered research and design. In many cases, this insight cannot be guessed between designers, only learned by listening to users.

I feel more confident having the participants’ feedback shape our work pipeline and I’m sure the deeper cause-and-effect reasoning we found will give upgrades longer-term sustainability. Although the past still plagues upcoming news innovations, I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Learn more about the program on the SDSU website and feel free to leave any questions you have in the comments below, I’ll do my best to answer.

Follow on Twitter: @bloomfornews and me personally at @stephen_json

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Thanks to Amy Schmitz Weiss

Stephen Jefferson

Written by

Designing news and communities. Founder of Bloom (, 2016 Tow-Knight Fellow. Washington DC

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +503K people. Follow to join our community.

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