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Smarticles: What We’ve Learned (So Far) From Testing an Intelligent New Story Format

Early evidence from our experiments suggests that there may be more economical ways for newsrooms to cover evolving stories on small (or really, all) screens.

  • When a reader first visits the page, the blocks contain just the most fundamental story details up to that point.
  • As the reader returns, an algorithm determines what should appear for each user. For these first three experiments, the algorithm took into account what someone had read on their last visit, and the importance of each new story development.
  • Users who read the story on Chrome browsers have the option to subscribe to notifications, which are sent when there is a critical mass of updates or a major development in the story.

A few views of the Smarticle coverage of the Republican tax bill.
  • Topics covered by The Guardian. Our experiments also relied on The Guardian’s coverage, so we needed to be reasonably sure the Guardian US newsroom would be covering the chosen topic. (We also drew content from social media and other sources as well as Guardian stories) The stories we chose seemed to have momentum, and we consulted with the news desk to see if the coverage would continue before launching a Smarticle.
  • Stories with a clear arc. The stories also developed in an incremental nature that suited the format well. While there were competing narratives within the topic, each story followed a distinct arc punctuated by key events, such as statements from core figures or votes in congress.
  • Stories with repeated context. Finally, each article written on these topics contained a paragraph or two of context that was repeated in each piece. In the Smarticle, reporters only have to write it once and readers who are already aware of it do not need to re-read it.

The response:

As with all lab experiments, we sent out a survey to our alert subscribers after each test. These surveys give us a chance to learn a great deal from the thoughtful feedback from users. The questions we ask are meant to gauge how interesting and useful these new formats are to those who use them, and include questions about specific elements of the format (a design feature, or type of content, for example), as well as open-ended fields to invite reactions to aspects we have not thought to ask about. Pairing the feedback from these survey responses with engagement data from our analytics suite allows us to get the full picture of insights about how each Smarticle was used and received by readers.

Part of the Smarticle on the sexual harassment scandal involving Roy Moore.

Limitations of the experiments:

For all the positive feedback we received, which we appreciate as validation of the premise of Smarticles, the experiments we’ve conducted have had some known limitations.

Audience size:

The size of the audience for each of our experiments tended to directly correlate to the readership on the Guardian site. Overall, the audience for the set of Smarticles ranged from about 1,200 readers to nearly 12,000. A smaller set of those readers visiting on Chrome browsers were eligible to sign-up for notifications, which ended up being between about 4% and 11% of readers who had the option to subscribe.

  • Roy Moore: 2,773
  • Republican Tax Bill: 8,243
  • Roy Moore: 1,214
  • Republican Tax Bill: 6,685
  • Roy Moore: 120 (11% of eligible Chrome users)
  • Republican Tax Bill: 160 (4% of eligible Chrome users)

Moving forward…

While we’ve learned a great deal from the experimentation we’ve done so far, there is still a lot to explore. Now that we’ve established readers are comfortable with elements of the story disappearing based on whether or not they’ve been seen, the main question that we are exploring next is: When is the right time to resurface information reader’s have already read, if at all?

  1. The algorithm will take into account the assigned rank of each story detail along with elements of the user’s behavior, such as the time since their last visit, how long they viewed each detail, and the number of details that have been published.
  2. A combination of these factors will decide what elements readers will see each time they return to the page.


The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

An innovation team in the Guardian US newsroom exploring storytelling and delivering news on small screens. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Mazin Sidahmed

Written by

Reporter/Associate Editor at The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

An innovation team in the Guardian US newsroom exploring storytelling and delivering news on small screens. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.