Live: Now From Your Lock Screen

Users watched live video in an expanded notification for an average of three minutes.

The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab’s live video within an alert on January 20, 2016.

Even now, in an era that feels saturated by breaking news, live video has a startling power to transport the viewer into the action. When we talk about events after they happen, we now say not only “Do you remember where you were when…?” but also “Do you remember what that looked like?”

Newsrooms have a variety of ways of making live video available on desktop, but fewer means of directly bringing users into a live video stream on mobile. For the inauguration on January 20, we tested a completely new format that offered an additional entry point: live video inside a notification, sent to iOS users via the Mobile Innovation Lab app.

Why We Did It

An ongoing goal of the mobile lab is to investigate how notifications can be used in new ways to provide both utility and context for the user. By adding a live video stream to a notification, our aim was to offer a totally new entry point for mobile users who may want to know what’s going on “right now” or who may want access to the source material (like a live view of an official statement, ongoing protest, or major event).

We were interested in using the inauguration, with its hours-long duration, to see when users would open a live stream, how long they would watch for, and if they would re-engage at different points during the day. Would users expand to watch for just the major events or would they use the stream as an alternate television?

This was also an opportunity to do something brand new. We believe this was the first use of live video in a notification ever — an exciting first and an opportunity to break ground and evaluate the format for future use.

Our Hypothesis

Our belief in creating this format was that by making live streaming video of an important news event more accessible on mobile phones while news is happening, live video notifications would offer mobile users a level of convenience they wouldn’t otherwise get by seeking it out on TV, a desktop web page, or within an app.

We saw possible indicators of success of the format as time users spent with the notification expanded and the video playing, as well as positive feedback to our survey questions about its usefulness and functionality.

What We Did

We recently launched an iOS app for the purpose of running Mobile Innovation Lab experiments quickly and easily. One of the lab’s developers, Alastair Coote, who built the app, included the capacity to send live video notifications. The notifications were available to users who downloaded the app and allowed them.

Expanding the notifications

To populate the notifications, we relied on the Reuters live video feed, which we knew would have live coverage of the entire inauguration day and the attendant events. The notifications were sent from a tool, created by Connor Jennings, the other lab developer, and run by the mobile lab, which allowed us to include a notification title and bit of text, updated continuously with what was happening in the live video.

Our first live video notification was sent at 11am EST, as members of the president-elect’s family and politicians arrived at the ceremony in Washington DC. It also included instructions to “press and hold to expand the notification.” In later pushes, we changed this language to “press and hold, or swipe left to view” after users on older model phones, where the press and hold to view was not applicable, told us on Twitter that our earlier language was unclear to them.

Once in an expanded notification, users saw a short title indicating the most recent update, the live video, and 2–3 lines of copy with more details about the events pictured at the moment the alert was sent. As much of what was shown was planned or announced in advance, this copy included details about who was speaking and their titles, or some of the history of the ceremony.

In the expanded view, users could tap on the video to mute and unmute the sound, as well as tap on two action buttons, one of which took the user to the live blog, with the other offering the option to opt-out of the notification. If the user dismissed the alert by swiping it away, they received an immediate follow-up notification with a way for them to re-open the alert. We decided to send this follow-up notification based on feedback from previous experiments, when users who accidentally swiped away notifications were frustrated by needing to wait for another push to re-engage.

Over the course of the day we sent 29 updates to the live video notification, ending around 6:45pm EST, as the inaugural parade following the ceremony was coming to a close.

Numbers in Brief

Audience Size: 620 users

Engagement:

  • Users watched video for three minutes on average
  • Users expanded the alerts an average of between three and four times during the experiment
  • 25% of users tapped through to the live blog during the experiment

From the survey:

  • Users who rated the alert positively, calling it useful, interesting and convenient: 85%
  • Users who said they would want this type of alert for Breaking News Events: 98%
  • Users who said they would sign up for this type of alert again: 89%

What the Data Told Us

Users on average expanded the alert multiple times. Users expanded the notification between 3 and 4 times throughout the day. 92.5% of survey takers also said they expanded the alerts they received, indicating that our instructions were clear.

Users watched the live video in the notification for about the same amount of time that current wisdom suggests they watch video on the internet. The average play duration per user for live video was three minutes. That’s roughly on par with some assessments of how long users will watch video in other digital news formats, and is in the upper reaches of expected attention time for an average video online today.

Users came in at the important moments, and reengaged with the content that interested them. Reuters had published a schedule for subscribers of which events it would shoot on its inauguration feed, and then notified clients on the day of the inauguration that they would be cutting back and forth to the protests taking place that day in Washington DC. We adapted the text of the notification to make clear to users what the feed was showing when it switched to protests.

The switch to the protests proved to be the most popular update of the day, and the closest to a true “breaking news” event. 41% of subscribers expanded this alert to watch the video. Overall, users expanded between three and four times during the time we sent notifications.

Users found the alerts convenient, useful and interesting, far more than they found them onerous.

Survey takers indicated that they liked the convenience and utility that we were trying to put into the notification. From our subscription data we saw that the rate of users who turned off the notification over the course of the experiment was low, at 8% (while in the survey 80% told us they knew how to turn off the format if they had wanted to). Some who took the survey indicated that they had a hard time watching the video, or felt like it was more work, though, which gives us some indication that we could try to make the experience easier in future experiments.

25% of subscribers tapped through the live blog over the course of the experiment. Users found the “Open live blog” button below the live video stream and tapped through to get more information, which suggests that even with direct access to the video, some users still wanted analysis, or preferred a written account of events.

Additional Insights

Live video notifications, as well as being an industry first, held up well against our initial expectations and assumptions about their effectiveness as a means of conveying information. Most excitingly for us, 98% of users said that they would like this type of alert for a breaking news event. 89% said they would sign up for this type of alert again.

Running this format on the day required a full time editorial staffer and developer. Developing this type of notification required dedicated work from Alastair, who created the format while working on the mobile lab’s iOS app. In addition, we consulted with the Guardian US video team in advance about the video streams they would be using, and how we might embed the video in a notification.

Editorially, we were able to create an editorial schedule with suggested copy in advance, with the official information available ahead of the inauguration ceremony. One lab staffer ran the titles and notification copy for the format for the day, watching the live video stream and sending updates through the tool. Another developer was dedicated to the format on the day, watching for breakages. We sent 29 push notification updates, including several breaking news notifications in the afternoon for which we wrote copy on the fly, between 11am and 6:45 pm EST.

Live video notifications hold promise for live streamed breaking news. Our most engaged moment of the day was when we updated the alert as the live stream turned away from the official events of the inauguration to cover the protests in Washington DC. After the experiment, 98.3% of survey takers told us they would like these alerts for breaking news.

Additionally, of the 29 updates we sent that day, three others that had high engagement rates were those that signaled major events, like the arrival of the president-elect and the start of the ceremony. This suggests that this format can provide a handy way to prep users for news they know they would like to see, and then offer it immediately after.

We’re planning to try this format again and look forward to sharing it with you.

In the meantime, if you have questions or want to chat, send us an email at innovationlab@theguardian.com or find us on Twitter @gdnmobilelab.


The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab operates with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.