Prototyping Future Digital Story Formats with the BBC

Over a couple of weeks in May, we worked with one of the teams at BBC R&D led by Tristan Ferne on exploring future digital story formats for the news. The team at the Beeb have been working on this area of interest for a while through the use of design sprints.

We came aboard to assist the team in the third phase of the project which focused on understanding the news better & facilitating better participation with the news. Our goal were to help adapt the sprint process to better meet the requirements of the team and fit with the previous learnings from past sprints.

We played the role of external consultants reviewing and critiquing ideas generated, plus doing our best to bring the team’s assumptions of the project to the surface and helping the team to eradicate any BBC “bubbles” that they may have been accustomed to.

Since design sprints were introduced by Google Ventures as a process, they’ve become a staple in the product ideation, design and development process. A number of agencies frame their projects around sprints, advocating for an agile environment where we can learn earlier, fail fast and iterate. It hasn’t been without criticism (here, this too).

As I was leading the project from a kick-off stand point, I had my own critical views —

  • The process assumes that the organisation conducting the sprint already knows its customer already (in this case of the BBC, user).
  • Design Sprints goes smoothly when the organisation has a very detailed and clear view on the the targeted user group’s goals and frustrations.
  • Goal definition is critical — unless the goal is clear, you can keep sprinting, and run out of steam.
  • Time spent on the value prop is time well spent.

The sprint was conducted over a 8 day period:

Pre-sprint
Akil worked with Zoe and Tristan from BBC R&D on uncovering insights from desk research conducted on the target users and problem space. Akil also aided in the development of interview questions allowing us to uncover much deeper insights that will aid the team through the sprint.

Day 1
Monday — Kick-off workshop day.

The goal for this day was to make sure the team is on the right page and avoid potential pitfalls.

We started really broad and engaged in ideation exercises asking ourselves questions such as

What are our superpowers?

What is the purpose?

What’s the focus? Are we focusing on the right problems?

How might we fail?

How can we win?

What assumptions do we have?

We then shared and discussed about the insights from the desk research, drafting some provisional user personas helping us to shape narrow focus and beginning to refine questions for Tuesday’s user interviews.

The second half of the day, the team spoke to a number of in-house subject matter experts (BBC Three and Newsbeat) about our target user group for the sprints (under 26s).

I believe this is a picture from the Kick-Off workshop haha
I remember this picture well.

Day 2
On Tuesday, the team conducted 4 interviews with people from the target user group, talking to them about their relationship with the news, behaviours, goals and frustrations around online news.

While the user interviews were going on, the team that was not involved with interviews shared interesting and inspiring examples of relevant work from other organisations, sketching and noting our favourite aspects.

We developed “How might we…” statements based on what we’d learnt. Statements included

“How might we measure understanding?”

and

“How might we help people understand at their desired level?”

Zoe sharing insights.

Day 3 & Day 4

user interviews

The insights from the user interviews acted as inspiration for ideation and concepting. The team began generating to create ideas on post-its and sketching them.

The ideas were explored and refined further, we also had an alternative ideas session led by some of the BBC R&D team who were not involved in this project.

As time was a luxury and the pressure raising, the team voted on which ideas where the most feasible to prototype.

Ideation.

Days 5 & 6
My favourite days (everything is my fav)!! Prototyping. The BBC R&D team on this project consisted of Tristan, producer, Mathieu, Creative Technologist, Zoe, Journalist and Thomas, UX designer and Louise, work experience while I played code support to them.

I enjoyed working with the team as they have a refined process that facilitates creating working HTML prototypes in a short period of time. The team’s superpowers were combined as designing, coding, writing interface copy, sourcing and writing news stories were conducted over the two days.

We created five prototypes named Simplify, Annotate, Levels, Progress, WhoSaidWhat all exploring different aspects of understanding the news better and more user participation with new contents.

Sketches of the prototypes (can’t show them all in its visual form soz)
Can show this one — Simplify, one of the prototypes (I actually worked on this haha).

Day 7
The day of pressure! The day where we found out if we really hit the nail on the head or we wasted our time for the last six days. The team tested the prototypes in the morning and then quickly fixed some bugs.

The rest of the day was spent in testing sessions with six participants, facilitated by a user researcher.

Day 8

We reviewed the testing notes and wrote down what we’d learnt and our conclusions.

Akil ran a wrap-up workshop where we evaluated the prototypes together based on our agreed criteria.

Finally Akil also ran a retrospective session to evaluate the design sprint process itself which has now led to a fancy document titled the “BBC R&D Sprint Framework”.

Akil doing wrap up workshop.

In the words of Tristan —

“Overall it worked well. It certainly felt quite fast, with little time to stop and think, though personally I think it’s important to timebox these activities so we don’t get stuck overthinking things.”

Some things the team felt could have improved:

  • The sprint was great but we all agreed that spending more time on the desk research insights before the sprint, would have saved more time in the sprint.
  • While the team had its superpowers, on Day 2, there was a period of time where the team found it difficult to engage in activities alongside the interviews, as throughout the day a subset of the team were in the user interviews note-taking or observing.
  • I think in terms of user group for sprints, this has been the most inclusive so far in regards to socio-economic background and race. However for further improvement, the goal for future sprints is to get more outside perspectives on the ideas throughout the sprint (from outside the team and outside the BBC).

Impact

We contributed to a big project which as been very heavily documented in the press:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/blog/2018-07-prototyping-news-story-article-format-journalism

https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/bbc_prototypes_the_future_of_smartphone_content/40808

https://blog.prototypr.io/prototyping-design-sprints-503feb1f7cc9