Web Notifications Introduction: News on Lock(screens)

How the Guardian US Mobile Innovation Lab has experimented with telling stories in web notifications.

An Android lock screen at the beginning of our EU referendum experiment.

At the end of last week, we (the Mobile Lab) all turned to look at each other. “Can you believe it’s only been 18 days since we ran our first public experiment?” one of us asked. We could not in fact believe it. After months of ramping up the lab, we were suddenly operating at full speed.

The last several weeks have been huge for us: We welcomed another developer, Connor Jennings; we ran two public versions of our jobs report notification experiment; we covered two primary nights through notifications; and we ran a notifications experiment covering the EU referendum.

And we’ve learned a lot.

We’ve known since establishing our five areas of focus that we wanted to experiment with notifications. The jobs report, primaries, and now the EU referendum, have been interesting for a few reasons: they are events that unfold over the course of a number of hours where there are smaller developments throughout.

Most organizations are using news alerts to push out top news, and include only straight headlines. This is with good reason: alerts require an app download, and a user’s options are usually either to get every alert (although some organizations have broken down the options to set of topical preferences: sports, business, etc) or none, making the risk of alienating a user with one too many alerts a constant.

But notifications, we believe, can also be used to tell a targeted piece of a story (or even the entire story itself) right on users’ lockscreens.

With the capacity for pushing out alerts now built into Chrome (aside from its iOS app), publishers suddenly have a broader range of options for what they do with the format. It has some defined parameters (character counts, limited actions, for example) but is also flexible enough to deliver information in a variety of ways and formats. It also offers publishers options for how long they run a set of alerts from one time to ad infinitum.

For users, signing up to receive a set of notifications requires no big commitments like a download or registration.

However, with this access to users’ lockscreens delivering relevant, timely content is no less a challenge. Editors need to make careful choices about what they deliver, how many alerts they send and how often.

We’ve started experimenting and hope others will, too. As of now we’ve tested five types of web notifications, which we’ve profiled here (click on names for full write-ups of each):

  • Interactive — which allows users to chart a path through a story, or can help break down a dense topic like the US jobs report.
  • Auto-updating— which is a single notification that automatically updates with new information, for example with an elections data feed.
  • Key events — which tell a piece of a story and can usually stand alone; sometimes used to fill time gaps between other notification types.
  • Sequential— which offers users only one path through a predetermined thread of information, for example a Top 10 list.
  • Live polling — which brings users into the conversation in real time through questions and live answers, i.e. about the EU referendum results.

We’ve also posted technical write-ups of the back- and front-end code that powers the notifications experiments, with the hope that developers in other newsrooms wanting to test web notifications on their own could look to these documents to see how to start.

For now our formats are targeted to Android. In its release of iOS 10, Apple will include some increased functionality into iPhone and iPad notifications. We plan to experiment there, as well.

In the meantime, we welcome your questions and suggestions. Drop us a note: innovationlab@theguardian.com

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