By Kourtney Bitterly, Meg Fee and Thomas Mitchell
How are people using established and emerging technology? How do they use technology to understand the news? As a research team made up of designers, software developers, researchers and writers at The New York Times, we interview consumers and experts to find answers to these questions. In our human-centered design research process, we believe that in order to grasp how media is evolving, it’s important to start with people.
In 2019, we traveled. Our research took us to people’s homes in Vancouver, Minneapolis, Detroit, Delhi and many places in between to better understand people’s needs and behaviors. We explored areas such as the increased use of voice assistants, group texting, audio habits and wellness. Research participants gave us a peek into their lives. We watched how people use their social media accounts, we listened to podcasts alongside them in their cars and we sat in their kitchens while they asked Alexa for the weather forecast.
No matter where we spoke to people, certain themes continuously came up regardless of the topic we were researching. We looked at these themes through the lens of news, but they are indicative of how people consume content and use technology. We’ve collected 10 of our top themes and are sharing them below and as a downloadable packet.
Word of mouth is still the ultimate recommendation engine.
Everywhere people turn, there are curated lists and carefully tweaked algorithms telling them what to read, watch or listen to. It can feel like there’s a never-ending list of recommendations to sort through. In a hyper-connected world where time can feel like it’s in short supply, people want to know that their time will be well-spent. They don’t want recommendations that simply replicate what they have previously consumed, they want to discover new things. While algorithms can offer interesting suggestions, nothing beats the recommendations from co-workers, family and friends. Personal recommendations, which are the product of ongoing personal conversations, allow for the discovery of new content to feel seamless and nuanced.
Scheduled programming fosters ritual and connection.
Content that is available on-demand means people can watch and listen to whatever they want whenever they want it. But there’s something lost by the fragmented nature of how people now consume that content. If everyone is watching or listening to something different, connection over shared experience can be harder to achieve.
When people watch or engage with scheduled content, the experience becomes a ritual and the content becomes a cultural touchpoint. We see this when people join thousands of others for live Peloton rides, or when people check their favorite music streaming service for new music every Friday. And who can forget those few weeks in April and May when it seemed like everyone was talking about the final season of “Game of Thrones”? The conversations about the content often feel as valuable as the content itself. Consistent programming facilitates these conversations — and ultimately fosters a sense of connection — by turning that scheduled content into an event.
People want stories with a clear beginning, middle and, most importantly, end.
At a time when turning on the news or scrolling through Twitter feels like a firehose of information, the desire for contained stories is particularly acute. In what feels like a relentless and never-ending news cycle, people are hungry for a sense that they have reached the end of a story or that they have caught up on a topic. People are looking for content that has an endpoint, if not a succinct resolution. This is particularly true with developing news stories: people feel like they are often thrown into the middle of the story, without context of what has already happened.
Through our research, we heard that people flock to true crime stories for just this very reason. Whether they listen to podcasts or watch shows such as “Dateline,” people said they enjoy the contained nature of the content: they know that that the mystery will be solved by the end. When it comes to news, people want that feeling of accomplishment, as well.
People are tired of the “push.”
In the United States, we heard from person after person who said they have turned off push notifications, exhausted by the constant demand for their attention. Many users are turning to voice assistant technology, like smart speakers, because it allows them to get the information they need without ever having to look at a screen. Notifications can feel intrusive and disruptive, but asking a smart speaker for a news alert allows individuals to get information on their own terms.
Disconnecting from social media doesn’t mean fleeing it entirely.
The Americans we spoke to said they are setting boundaries in order to mediate the influence that social media has in their lives. People — particularly young people — told us they have deleted social media apps from their phones, but in reality, they have not totally abandoned these platforms. They might delete the Facebook app from their phone and check it in a web browser, or they might remove the Instagram app during the week and indulge only on the weekends. To the people we spoke to, this self-imposed friction feels like an attempt to regain and maintain control.
Time of day influences content selection.
During interviews, we often asked people to walk us through a typical day so we could learn how they consume news. We saw that the majority of people prefer to consume hard news in the morning, and less demanding content, such as a true crime or pop culture podcast, in the evenings. In the morning, they’re more willing to engage with the news that make them feel prepared for the day. But then the day unfolds with work meetings, child care, errands and seemingly infinite list of decisions to be made; People’s daily lives demand a lot of them. By the end of the day, they want content that is relaxing.
Rarely do media organization take time of day and the cognitive load of their users into account when publishing content. But if organizations acknowledged these behaviors and surface content accordingly, they can meet users where they are.
People crave transparency.
Similar to the shift we’ve seen in the farm-to-table movement around food sourcing and production, people want to know what goes into news production. In dozens of conversations with people around the world, we heard that people want more than just the story: they want to know why it’s being told, who is telling it and how it came together. News consumers want to pull back the curtain to understand why a headline was written a certain way, or why a particular story was featured over another on a home page. They want to know that specific information was verified by multiple sources, or that reporters pored over thousands of pages of documents for a particular story.
The public hears claims of “fake news” just as often as people who work in media. When people understand the process and people involved in telling a story, they are more likely to trust it.
People want more dynamic and nourishing social spaces.
People are looking for avenues where they can have more intimate conversations. They want spaces where they can truly connect with people, rather than passively follow people. The people we spoke to talked about moving away from “posts on the grid,” in places like Instagram, and status updates on Facebook in favor of one-on-one and small group conversations.
The professionalization of social media, where it feels like everyone has to cultivate a personal brand, is less appealing for many of the people we spoke to. They are instead looking to Instagram stories and group texts because they feel like they can be more vulnerable and honest there. Most importantly, stories and texts are an invitation to participate in dynamic, real-time communication with other people in a way that static posts are not. Our research participants told us that receiving a private reply to an Instagram story feels more meaningful than a like on a post. To many people, what makes a platform social is not that it allows people to broadcast their opinions to the world, it’s that it enables intimate conversations among people they trust.
Every space feels like a political space.
As we talked to people in the United States, a common refrain we heard was that politics and morality feel so intertwined that people feel obligated not only to stay informed, but to have an opinion. In fact, people told us that the lack of an opinion — by celebrities, brands and news organizations — actually implies a political stance. Despite the rise of political discussion, people on both sides fear seeming out of their depth or being attacked for sharing a political viewpoint. People want to have those conversations privately with the people they trust. Group texts in messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Slack, iMessage and Instagram Messenger feel like far safer spaces to have nuanced political conversations.
The most recent information is not always the most relevant.
News consumers and news producers aren’t always aligned when it comes to how to surface content. Sometimes readers are interested in the most current information or the latest events, and sometimes they are seeking out a specific topic which may lead to more evergreen content. News organizations tend to surface the most recent content, but that often gets people only some of the information they’re looking for. This emphasis on the latest information puts more weight on what’s just been published and less weight on content that might help readers contextualize and make sense of an issue. In getting people the information they need and want, we need to think about how information fits into the bigger picture.
Kourtney Bitterly is the Research Lead for the Product and Design Discovery team at The New York Times.
Meg Fee is a Design Strategist with the Product and Design Discovery team at The New York Times.
Thomas Mitchell is a Technical Strategist with the Product and Design Discovery team at The New York Times.
Looking Forward to 2020, Here are 10 Themes for News was originally published in NYT Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Source: New York Times