A first look at our user-focused approach to scoping and building new experimental local news products.
Editor’s note: As part of our effort to be open and transparent about the full process of news product innovation — and not just the results — we’ll publish pieces here about how we approach projects and iterate on our plans before we launch experiments. We hope this peek into our process is useful for other teams wanting to experiment, and we’d appreciate your feedback on this idea.
Ijoined the Lenfest Local Lab as a UX designer in mid-August right after graduating from Drexel University’s Interactive Digital Media program in Philadelphia. The first project I began working on with the lab team is a location-aware app to send related news notifications based on where people are. The purpose of this experiment is to test different ways of surfacing local news using someone’s real-time location.
We thought we’d begin with articles written by Inga Saffron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic, because her stories are evergreen and literally associated with a place — like a building, bridge, park or church. We also thought it would be easier for people to understand the alert if they could look up and see the actual place central to the story.
Another appeal of architecture stories was that our small team could reliably curate them for the app — rather than say, trying to filter a stream of local breaking news alerts near you — and we wanted to start small and build a basic, yet functional prototype that notified people with trusted, geographically relevant local news content.
How I got started
I started applying UX thinking by outlining questions and challenges that users of this app might encounter. Before I could start designing the experiment, there were fundamental questions I needed answers to, including:
- Do people check notifications on a regular basis?
- Do they tend to engage with notifications?
- What are other features would they expect from a location-aware news app?
A good way to quickly gather impressions from potential users is to deploy a survey, and so I did for this experiment.
Based on the initial questions I brainstormed, I drafted this survey to get insights to help our team narrow the app’s scope.
Location: I went to parks and open spaces in the Old City area and on the University of Pennsylvania campus to talk to people.
Deployment: Starting conversations with strangers was nerve-racking, but I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone and managed to get 30 surveys completed. I received multiple rejections, but there were many people who found the topic interesting and were willing to contribute their thoughts.
While conducting this survey, I gained some experience that may be useful to others who would like to survey local residents:
- Instead of stopping people on the street, go where people are resting or taking breaks. This increases the chances they will be willing to spend time on your survey.
- Make the survey short, and clearly explain how long it will take to complete.
- Have a short introduction ready that includes who you are, who you are running the survey for and the purpose of the survey.
- Be clear that you are not collecting any confidential information.
We were happy to get respondents from across a broad age range, as illustrated in this chart:
If additional surveys are needed later on in the process, I will target respondents aged 35–44 and people 65 and older so we have an equal number from each age range.
Note: The number of survey respondents was sufficient for us since we are a small team in search of mainly qualitative feedback from potential users. We’ll continue to gather feedback after the app is launched, but this was enough to get started.
The goals for the survey were to identify potential users’ news reading habits; how they discover news; and to get their thoughts on a location-aware app that sends news notifications. Here were the results:
On news reading habits
- The survey showed most people read news daily, and a small number of people read news weekly.
On ways people discover news
- The most common ways that people discover news is through searching online, TV/broadcast, social media, and news apps.
- The less common ways respondents discover news are through newsletters and chat apps, like WhatsApp.
- We also invited respondents to let us know of other ways they discover news that we didn’t include in our original list of possible responses. There were two write-in replies for podcasts, which aren’t included in the graph below.
On the idea of a location-aware app
- Many people were open to receiving news based on location to be more engaged with what’s going on locally.
- Some people thought this kind of app would work particularly well in a city.
- A few people didn’t like the idea and were concerned about sharing their location with the app.
- A few mentioned they didn’t want to be notified about bad news, like crime.
And a few other thoughts respondents had about a location-aware app that caught our attention were:
- “It’d be great. It’d bring a lot more awareness to what’s happening right in your backyard.”
- “I think it would be interesting but I’m not sure why exactly you would need news about buildings.”
- “I’m a little nervous about sharing my location.”
- “I think I would enjoy it if it was about good news and less about crime.”
On receiving news notifications
I also wanted to gather impressions about how people feel receiving mobile news notifications.
The majority of respondents said they received news notifications on their phone, and many said they typically clicked on alerts to read articles.
Of the people who didn’t receive news notifications on their phone, more than half still thought that receiving news notifications would be useful.
I came away from the research with two main conclusions,and both were positive indicators that we should move forward with the experiment based on interest from local residents and news readers.
- We concluded that there is perceived value for location-aware news alerts among some respondents.
- We also learned there are opportunities beyond a location-aware app that can improve the local news experience, including providing better options for personalization or filtering by topic, as well as an emphasis on delivering good news.
Based on the survey, I started drawing initial app sketches with pen and pencil. The sketches included ideas for welcome screens (or onboarding), content filtering and layout. With almost 50 sketches to review, the team met to discuss the possibilities for the app.
We decided we would request permission to send people notifications and also to access their location, and that the app’s main screen would display a list of Inga’s articles about Center City Philadelphia with a toggle option for a map view of where articles were located. With those decisions made, I transitioned from pen and pencil sketches to make low-fidelity wireframes using the digital design tool Sketch.
Thank you for reading and please stay tuned to see how the app has evolved between this initial phase and the final product!
(Hint: You may or may not see the list view of stories in the app when we launch, and you might even see some more types of stories included. More on that coming soon!)
The Lenfest Local Lab is a small, multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia, PA supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.