What We’ve Learned (So Far) From Building and Testing ‘Shifting Lenses’

Users sent strong signals that alternative views of of live coverage make sense to them.

On the podium, Off the podium lenses on inauguration day

With two recent projects using a new format we’re calling “Shifting Lenses,” the lab is now moving into experimentation on live coverage, a second area of focus that we outlined at the start of our time here. The feature, a proof of concept that we’ve written a little bit about before, is an initial pass at a mobile-first reworking of the live blog format. It includes two different views, or “lenses,” through which a user might better understand or follow a live event.

We’ve now tested the feature during two events and are excited to share some of what we’ve learned from running it during the inauguration and the Super Bowl.

Why We Did It

Shifting Lenses came out of work we did with Code and Theory, a New York-based digital agency, to design and prototype mobile-first features for live news coverage. In an article published just before our first test of the feature during the inauguration, we talked a bit about some of the thinking and research about the current state of live blogs that went into development of the feature.

“Last year, at the start of the lab, we started thinking about how live coverage could better suit a mobile-first era, and noticed how little had changed since live blogs became a popular format used by a large number of news organizations, in a pre-smartphone era. We looked at lot of live blogs covering a variety of news events and noticed they shared a number of common features, ones that make them ill-suited to modern mobile reading habits.
First, there’s currently really only one way to move through most live blogs — from the most recent update to the oldest. This organizational principle matters when you consider all the different times readers may be entering a live blog. There are very few clues as to what has happened prior to the first update they see (usually the most recent) and what the latest post means in the context of others. That most recent post might build on a narrative thread the blog has been following for some time, or introduce a new topic, or correct an earlier assumption. The reader is left to decipher for themselves how it fits into the whole.
Second, and most relevant to this experiment, a live blog doesn’t consider that a user might find some information in the live blog more interesting or more useful than other pieces of information. For example, some users may prefer maps or other visual elements to text describing a location. These limitations are compounded on mobile where reading a live blog can feel like an exercise in endless scrolling.”

Our Hypothesis

We believed taking advantage of the ability to swipe to a new screen on mobile devices could help users to better keep up with multiple lines of coverage during a live event. We predicted we would see signs of its effectiveness in how users interact with the lenses and through the users’ affirmation that they understand the format type.

What We Did

Shifting Lenses was built to address dual concerns about how well (or not) live blogs are organized to make storylines clear and scannable. While a live blog usually covers the whole of an event, multiple storylines often coexist within it, and we thought that teasing out these lines would better direct readers towards the parts of the coverage they were most interested in. To do this, we created two views for each live blog — the namesake “lenses” through which users might understand an event.

Because we were building these features to test around planned events, we gave some thought ahead of each event about what storylines would emerge. In the case of both the inauguration and Super Bowl, we realized the different storylines had a lot to do with the concept of proximity to the main event. We realized that users looking for updates might not just be looking at the main event, but also on what was happening around it.

Here’s how we thought it through: For the inauguration, readers might visit the live blog for the inaugural ceremony, as well as for news on all the other events going on around it, like reactions from the crowd and the protests. For the Super Bowl, some readers would want game updates, just as others would be interested in the surrounding spectacle — the ads and the half-time show.

For the inauguration, we called the lenses were “On the podium,” and “Off the podium.” The “On the podium” lens was made up of live blog posts which covered official and pre-planned events. These included the arrival of notable politicians, the inaugural address, and the departure of President Obama. The “Off the podium” lens included live blog posts describing what happened around the inauguration, like the protests that broke out in Washington DC.

On the field, all post, and ads and half-time lenses for the Super Bowl experiment

For the Super Bowl, our two lenses were “On the field” and “Ads and Half-time.” The Guardian actually published separate live blogs for these two storylines, so our task became simply to juxtapose them for viewers interested in one or both lines of coverage.

To create the two lenses, mobile lab developer Alastair Coote used the Guardian Content API to pull in content from the live blogs. He also used the Twitter and YouTube APIs in order to display media embedded in the Guardian live blog posts. For the inauguration day test, these posts were pulled into a tool where another member of the mobile lab was able to decide which posts went to each lens. During the the Super Bowl test, the separate live blogs for sports and entertainment coverage meant that the lenses could be automated. All posts were sent directly to the respective view. In each test we also included a middle view between the lenses that included “All posts” so users could choose to view all the posts at once.

For these first tests, we ran Shifting Lenses on a delayed schedule to test the workflow behind it. On inauguration day, in order to test the workflow of the feature as much as what it looked like to an external audience, we did not attempt to run it as a real-time feature, and ran it hours into and after the day’s events. The audience sizes for these first few tests reflect the delayed launches.

Numbers in Brief

Inauguration

Audience Size: 119 users

Engagement:

  • 1,819 total scroll starts, or an average of 9 scroll starts per user
  • 341 total swipes between lenses, or an average of 1 to 2 swipes per user
  • 141 total taps to move between lenses, or an average of 0 to 1 tap per user

Super Bowl

Audience Size: 521 users

  • 98% of users were on mobile

Engagement:

  • 11,693 total scroll starts, or an average of 22 scroll starts per user
  • 1,895 total swipes between lenses, or an average of 3 to 4 swipes per user
  • 404 total taps, or an average of 0 to 1 tap per user

Combined responses from the Inauguration and Super Bowl surveys:

  • Users who said the format was easy to use: 95%
  • Users who said the different lenses made sense: 90%
  • Would maybe or definitely sign up again: 94%

What the Data Tells Us

Users swiped much more than they tapped to navigate between the lenses. Both tests show that swiping far outperformed tapping as a means of “shifting” between the lenses, by a ratio of four to one. The prevalence of swiping shows that users generally understood how to navigate through the lenses.

Users said the feature was easy to use. In surveys for both tests, users said by a wide margin that the feature was either very easy or kind of easy to use, further supporting the idea that a mobile-first navigation paradigm could work in an adapted live blog. All of those who were surveyed for the inauguration said the feature was easy or kind of easy to use, a figure complemented by the 90% of those who said the same in their answers to the survey for the Super Bowl experiment.

Users understood why we separated these storylines and the choice of lenses made sense to them. Users also said the way we broke out storylines was clear in motive and presentation. 90% of users surveyed said the inauguration day “One the podium” and “Off the podium” breakouts made sense and were useful to them, as did 90% of the Super Bowl users surveyed about “On the field” and “Ads and Half-time.” Users from both tests also said that they could see using the format for news cases different from the one they had seen. 80% of Super Bowl users said that they would be interested in the Shifting Lenses format for political events and 60% expressed interest in it for breaking news.

Additional Insights

This proof of concept seems to resonate with users. These first two tests suggest that users would be interested in seeing future development of this format type. In the future, to continue to test this feature, we will need to test the workflow of Shifting Lenses for a truly breaking news event and try to update it in real time.

Editorial assistance (possibly) needed. As noted earlier, the idea behind Shifting Lenses was to break out specific storylines. In the case of the Super Bowl, the Guardian US newsroom had already decided to cover the event from two angles: sports as well as the ads and entertainment. This made putting together Shifting Lenses an exercise in addition. We were taking the two live blogs and connecting them side-by-side for the same event.

In the case of the inauguration — and, we think, any future live or breaking news event — creating Shifting Lenses becomes more of an exercise in division, separating out the different lines of coverage from an ongoing stream of incoming information. This process leads to the same type of user experience, but requires a different, more editorially dependent workflow to make the judgements about which lens each live blog post belongs to.

We think it’s premature to say if one flow is better than the other, and the answer may prove to be completely context-dependent. What we can say thus far, though, is that the format needs editorial influence up front to decide the topics of the lenses, and to distill the narratives each lens will follow.

Next steps: User feedback from the survey suggests we might want to send clearer signals, or include more prompts for how to view the different lenses. They suggested we think about a way to indicate that there is content that exists to the left and right when scrolling down the page.

We’ll continue to explore the possibilities for altering live coverage to better suit mobile users looking for news where they are.

Let us know what you thought of these experiments or share ideas to innovationlab@theguardian.com or on Twitter @gdnmobilelab.

To follow future live coverage experiments, download our iOS app.


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