News that lets you do both: How we tested a read-and-watch live video feature

92% of users surveyed said they might want a mini live video player on a future live blog.

Two birds, one… you get it. (Photo: Chris Grady/Alamy)

In one of our first posts, we wrote about what we thought were missed opportunities for news organizations’ live blogs in light of the growth of mobile usage. From implementing mobile-first behavioral paradigms, such as swiping and tapping, to creating the ability to find out what had happened earlier in an event without a prodigious amount of scrolling, we identified a number of possible ways to make live blogs, still the most common way news organizations present live coverage, more mobile-centric. In many instances we came to these possibilities in partnership with staff from Code & Theory, a design agency we worked with on a round of user testing and prototyping last year.

One of those ideas — the ability to simultaneously read live blog text and watch a live video feed — resonated well in usability tests, and so we decided to make this a feature to test live during the presidential inauguration on January 20.

Why We Did It

A number of news sites, including CNN and Bloomberg, already include this “read and watch” format — in which a small version of a video player appears at the bottom right of a screen of text. It is generally used for pre-recorded videos that are matched with an accompanying article, rather than a live video stream. The YouTube and Facebook apps also have a minimizing, pinnable video player, but the content in the video does not relate to that which the user is scrolling through.

In the read-and-watch scenario we prototyped to accompany a live blog, the text and video are likewise supporting the same event, and updating concurrently, but offering different information. The live video allows users to keep pace with events in the moment, while the text describes earlier moments.

For a live blog in particular, the ability to read and watch simultaneously makes sense for users who want to jump into the live blog and keep up with the current news, while seeing what came before.

Our Hypothesis

Our assumption in building this product was that giving users the ability to read text and watch video updates at the same time during a live news event would alleviate their need to choose between the two formats, which can provide complementary kinds of information. We thought that indicators of success would be the length of time people spent using the video player, as well as anecdotal responses in our follow-up survey that they found this format useful.

What We Did

On inauguration day, we made the read and watch format available on the Guardian’s live blog throughout the day, viewable on mobile web (as well as desktop) and in the Guardian iOS and Android apps.

Live video player, pinned to bottom of inauguration live blog.

While the implementation scenario for the inauguration live blog differed from the uses of minimized video players by other news organizations, we kept much of the layout and features the same. When users entered the live blog, they saw the live video player pinned to the top of the page. After they interacted with the video — pressing or tapping to play — and then scrolled down the page, the video would minimize and be pinned to the bottom right corner of their screen, where it would stay as they scrolled further.

Even when the video was minimized, users could mute and unmute the video, play or pause the video or dismiss it by swiping it away or tapping a small ‘x’. They could also view the video in its original size by scrolling back to the top of the page.

Mobile lab developer Connor Jennings built this feature to be compatible with the YouTube player the Guardian has recently adopted.

Numbers in Brief

Audience size:

  • 200,000 users
  • 57% of the 347,000 live blog readers who saw the feature used it

Cross-platform engagement:

From our survey (linked to from the player):

Users said:

  • this format was easy to use: 85%
  • they liked being able to read and watch video at the same time: 85%
  • they might want it on all blogs: 92%

What That Data Told Us

Nearly 200,000 users interacted with the player on inauguration day. Inauguration Day live streams across all platforms broke all the Guardian’s records for live video, with the highest point of engagement just before Trump was sworn in.

Over half of the users who saw the player engaged with it. The live video multitasking player was seen by 347,000 users on mobile and desktop, and used by 200,000, or 57% overall.

Users had a high appetite for watching this video stream. The average play duration was just over 17 minutes! We did not track whether the video was playing in the primary tab, so we can’t tell if for some of the time the video was playing in the background. Still, the amount of time spent with the video playing suggests that live video is a content type that is of interest to users.

Users appreciated choice in how to interact with the video. The average user tapped ‘play’ around 7 times and ‘pause’ half as often. These interactions formed the vast majority of engagement that users had with the video. In addition to ‘play’ and ‘pause,’ they had additional options to mute and unmute, and to dismiss the player by tapping an ‘x’ or swiping it away. Closing the video player or swiping away accounted for only 4% of interactions. On average, users muted and unmuted the video once. 85% of users surveyed also said was easy or easy enough to use the controls.

The type and timing of engagement with the player varied by platform. Desktop users, who made up nearly 60% of the audience, also contributed the lowest number of average taps on the player, compared to mobile and tablet users. One possible reason for this might be each user’s location. Mobile users, who could be answering a text, opening another app, or even moving about their day, may instinctively be pressing pause, especially if they had the intention to return to the video. This also makes sense when you see that users on mobile had higher play actions than the more stationary desktop users — this could be their return to playing the video after pausing it.

Strength of the video stream may be another possible explanation (or culprit) if a user was moving around. It’s possible the video may not be loading as well —and it’s possible the higher tap actions are a reflection of a user trying to get a buffering video to restart or take time to load. Last, we saw a spike in desktop users pressing play when the first important guests arrived at the ceremony, however on mobile we saw a much steeper spike of users pressing play just a minute or two before the oath started. This suggests that desktop users started playing the video and browsed other tabs before checking back in on the stream during key moments, while mobile users, seemed more inclined to press play just before the key moments, and paused just after.

Users told us they enjoyed and understood the experience — on both mobile and desktop. Generally in the mobile lab, we don’t focus on the desktop experience. But because the inauguration was a daytime, weekday event, and many live blog readers were working during that time, it was important to our team and others at The Guardian that this player function well on desktop as well. The survey we appended to the minimized player to ask for feedback was taken by 139 users, 65.5% said they had viewed the player on desktop, 19.4% on mobile web, and 15.1% in the Guardian apps. Of users who took this survey on all the platforms, 76% said was clear that the format was playing live video, and 12.9% said was somewhat clear.

Additional Insights

Live video multitasking met our criteria for test success. To recap, we thought that indicators of success would be the length of time people spent using the video player, as well as anecdotal responses in our follow-up survey that they found this format useful.This first test reached a very large group of highly engaged users. And after interacting with the new feature, 92% of users told us they’d definitely or maybe like this feature to be available on all live blogs, a strong signal to move forward.

Once set up, this video player could run itself. In planning for this feature we consulted with the video team about best ways to work with the Reuters stream. Additionally, we worked with the Guardian US interactives team and the Guardian web development team to adapt one of the interactive team’s existing modules to launch the player on the site. For those considering a similar feature, our experiment showed that people used this feature widely across platforms. Building this feature for this experiment then required the dedicated work of one developer, Connor Jennings.

On inauguration day, this feature did not require dedicated editorial staff to run. It did require some attention from the Guardian US video team, though. Occasionally, Reuters will change a live video stream in the middle of an event. Had that happened we would have needed to locate and embed the new stream. Thankfully, that didn’t happen during the inauguration. We’re grateful to Guardian news video producers Clare Downey and Chris Whitford for keeping tabs on the stream that day on top of their other work.

The video player was a way to test the very idea of multitasking on a single screen on mobile. Our audience for this experiment had the largest percentage of desktop users, but still provided some interesting takeaways in terms of what we expect users to be able to do on a mobile screen versus desktop.

Relatively new features like Facebook Live and the YouTube app have introduced users to the idea of multitasking on mobile, where they might expect to scroll and watch at the same time. Neither were built with the consideration that you might want to watch the live video from an event while also reading about it. Contrast this to desktop, where autoplaying ads, similar video players and other features, even tabs, assume that multitasking is the default behavior. Do users want to multitask in the same way on mobile? The feature needs further testing, but our initial sense is that the answer is yes.

Expect to see the most interaction when the main event is happening. In this case, we consider the main event to be the moment the oath of office was being taken, just around noon. We saw the greatest number of users hit play minutes before then, and sharply decline afterward. We did not see a resurgence of activity (and even then a comparatively modest one) until the breaking news of protests later in the afternoon.

Future plans: Refine the controls and possibly give users greater control over size and location of the player. Users seemed very enthusiastic about this live video feature but had some specific suggestions about how they would like to interact with it. In the survey, users particularly asked for the ability to control the size and placement of the player. Some also mentioned some “jumpiness” upon scrolling, which should be smoothed out for a better experience. From a tracking perspective, it would be helpful to know if the page with the player is sitting in a background browser window, rather than being actively watched.


Did you see our mini live video player? What did you think? What would you like to see next time? Send us a note to innovationlab@theguardian.com.

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