How we made pre-launch product adjustments to address the effect COVID-19 and civil unrest had on neighborhood news and information needs.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts outlining the Lenfest Lab’s step-by-step approach to UX research. through the lens of our project with The Philadelphia Inquirer testing scalable and reliable hyperlocal coverage. Other parts in the series are available here:

Step 1 | Explore: A step-by-step guide to using UX research for local news product development.

Step 2 | Evaluate: A step-by-step guide to using UX research for local news product development.

Step 3 | Iterate: A step-by-step guide to using UX research for local news product development.

Before a product launches, constant iteration is needed.

In a previous post about the iteration phase of the UX research process for our new product experiment with hyperlocal newsletters, we explained how we used a technique called card sorting to help us prioritize the content that would appear in our first neighborhood newsletter based on how important news items were to residents. The card sorting exercise took place in January 2020.

Fast forward to July 2020, just before we were set to launch our first newsletter, and we realized we needed to pause and iterate again in order to take two significant events into account — the COVID-19 outbreak and the onset of civil unrest in many cities after the killing of George Floyd. We wanted to find out if the community’s news and information needs and habits had changed and so we dusted off a previous feedback survey and redeployed it with some important new questions.

Survey questions to address COVID-19 and civil unrest

We kept many of the questions from our initial survey and added three new ones to better understand residents’ behavior since the onset of COVID-19 and civil unrest.

How have you been spending time in the neighborhood during the past few months?

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This question was written to generally understand people’s behavior during quarantine or when people were spending most of their time either at home or in other socially distanced ways.

At the time this survey was sent out, Philadelphia was entering its own version of “yellow phase,” which was a loosening of social restrictions and reopening of certain business sectors. As things were changing throughout the city, we wanted to learn more about people’s past behavior since quarantine began in March.

To help make it easy to respond to the question, we included various types of socially distanced activities for people to choose from, such as picking up take-out and groceries, attending socially distanced events, attending virtual events and more. We also added “attending demonstrations or protests” to understand if residents were taking part in the gatherings in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Have you supported local businesses during the past few months?

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Fishtown residents who responded to our feedback survey told us they were interested in openings and closings of restaurants, an industry greatly affected by COVID-19 restrictions. With the addition of this new question, we wanted to gauge whether people were still choosing to engage with local businesses, including restaurants, while adhering to the city’s restrictions.

We also felt we could use the insights from these responses to learn more about how to successfully monetize the newsletter through advertisements from neighborhood businesses. Are people still buying food and merchandise from local businesses or are they finding new ways to support them, such as donations or buying gift cards?

How do you see yourself spending time in the neighborhood in the fall while following public health guidelines?

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Again, this survey was written at a time when peoples’ day-to-day lives were changing frequently, and we wanted to understand how people would envision their daily activities in the neighborhood in the future. We also wanted to get a sense of whether or not their imagined future behavior compared to what they were doing in the neighborhood now. Finally this question was also a way to signal to respondents that we were thinking about the benefits the newsletter could offer over time.

How we delivered the survey to residents

Thanks to relationships that the editor of The Hook, Kelly Brennan, set up with community organizations in Fishtown, two groups were happy to link to the survey from their own community newsletters. By being featured in newsletters from the Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District and the Fishtown Neighbors Association we were able to collect 110 responses to the survey.

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Survey results: What changed and what didn’t

The results from the survey validated our hypotheses that some of people’s behavior in the neighborhood had changed, but also confirmed that some habits and wants had stayed the same.

What changed

The main ways residents’ lives had changed were that people were spending more time getting food and drink, less time at events and spent some time demonstrating. Residents’ topics of interest also shifted and expanded.

  • 🍽 More time getting food and drink: Before residents of Fishtown said they spent a lot of time in the neighborhood going out to eat or drink. Then in response to COVID restrictions, they were spending more time picking up take-out and groceries.
  • 🛍 Less time at events and shopping; some time demonstrating: Also before civil unrest and demonstrations began, residents tended to go to local events, go shopping, and attend art/music shows. Now attending demonstrations or protests was a way they reported spending time outside the home.
  • 🤔 New topics of interest: More so than in the first set of survey responses the topics of arts and culture, local politics, local economy were listed as priorities. The impact of COVID-19 on the neighborhood also ranked high on the topics of interest.

What didn’t

The primary ways that residents’ lives had stayed the same was that people were spending the same amount of time outdoors, and their general interests and ways of accessing information didn’t seem to change.

  • 🌳 Outdoor time: Residents were still spending time at a park or walking, and exercising in the neighborhood.
  • 🤔 General interests: They were still generally interested in restaurant openings and closings, neighborhood improvement projects, and building/construction.
  • 📊 Public data: People’s interest in locally grown/healthy food options, and parks/recreation were still high up on the list.
  • 🗞 Information access: The ways people get neighborhood-related information stayed mostly the same, including social media, news sites (i.e The Inquirer), walking around the neighborhood and observe, neighborhood volunteer organizations, and friends and family.

Adjustments we made to the newsletter

We responded to the need for community-level COVID-19 information

When curating news and information about COVID-19, we focused on public health information including local testing sites as well as community social and financial resources for people experiencing hardships during the pandemic. In one edition of the newsletter we paired public health information with a citywide COVID-19 data visualization to help subscribers put health statistics in context and to have easy access to local resources.

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We also responded to heightened interest in local politics and the local economy.

For example, we curated announcements from the local business improvement district about restaurant re-openings and the city’s new safety guidelines. We have also included updates from businesses that have been financially challenged due to the pandemic.

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We kept providing information about food and drink

We continued to looked for and include news about local restaurants and food content, which survey respondents said they found interesting in both surveys prior to launch.

We kept highlighting events, but with a focus on virtual events and those with extra precautions

The Hook features neighborhood events alongside COVID-19 guidelines for socially distanced activities. In recent weeks we’ve added citywide information about increasing COVID-19 infection rates and cases in case that impacts residents’ decision-making for attending events.

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Maybe most importantly, we’re staying flexible as scenarios change and evolve

Our team understands that people will be engaging with the neighborhood in different ways during the coming months, including the way they choose to attend events, eat outside or shop in person at local businesses. Each week we include information about how to participate in the neighborhood — from outdoor holiday events to virtual zoning board meetings, while always sharing up-to-date COVID-19 safety information for context.

After nearly editions of The Hook, we’ve found a variety of ways to incorporate information that meets the moment in several sections of the newsletter and we’d love to hear from you if you’ve also adapted a news product or project to current conditions.

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