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A lesson on usability from the IE Lab

Did you know Mizzou has a laboratory on campus devoted to testing the usability of new technology? I had never heard of the Information Experience Laboratory until this week when my Emerging Media class had an opportunity to hear from two of the lab’s employees. Research assistants Ben Richardson and Kenneth Haggerty conduct research for the lab on a variety of topics, and they gave our group a tour and lessons from the lab. They have done research studies for a number of clients, including journalism organizations associated with Mizzou. Several years ago, the lab did research to study the usability of Newsy.  When they first did the usability study, Newsy looked something like this:

A screenshot of the Newsy homepage from 2007 using Wayback Machine

A screenshot from the Newsy homepage on April 18, 2014

The researchers used what is called a “think aloud” technique to evaluate the website. The user navigates the website while talking aloud about what they are doing. Although Newsy did not necessarily use every part of the IE’s usability study at the time, it is interesting to see how far the website has come. I think we can all agree that Newsy, and most websites, are more user-friendly than they were in 2007.

The IE lab seeks to look beyond just the interface of a website to determine usability and user experience. During our time at IE, the researchers explained a couple key points all websites should have:

Usability depends on:

  • Effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction

User experience depends on:

  • Branding, usability, content, functionality and probably social

Questions to consider for a website:

  • Is it useable? Is it useful? Will it be used?

  • Who is the intended audience?

  • Have “fresh eyes” seen the site?

  • Is learnable, memorable, consistent, free of error and satisfying in subject according to web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen’s principles?

  • Is it intuitive?

  • Can users find the information I expect/want them to find?

When the researchers look at a website, they try to set up tests to see if the average person has a positive usability and user experience. They ask clients the top five things they want people to get from the site and test to see if users can find out those five things easily. At IE they use a variety of research methods including: expert review, focus group, task analysis, think aloud, info architecture, info horizons, card sort, paper prototyping, treejack, eye tracking and Morae. During our tour I got to try out the eye tracking technology used in the lab. It was incredible how accurate the eye tracker was. It calibrated in about 20 seconds too. The lab is doing some pretty amazing studies with the technology. They recently used eye tracking and other methods to evaluate the MU Libraries website. They let me try out the usability test given to subjects when they were evaluating the newly designed library site. Here’s a video of me trying it out:

Overall, I learned a lot about usability. I had never considered a website from the usability perspective the IE researchers shared. Websites, particularly news websites, must first be usable and user friendly before an audience can even engage with content. Web design is often an afterthought, but is a very important foundation that determines the success of digital content. I hope to consider all that I learned as I produce digital content in my classes and future career.

 

Tool review: infogr.am

infogram

Screenshot from infogr.am

One of my biggest goals after the Journalism Interactive conference last weekend is to try out as many online journalism and visual tools as possible. I can’t possibly try out every tool I learned about last weekend, but this week I managed to test out infogr.am for one of my classes. Infogr.am, at first look, seems to be a great solution for design-challenged journalists. The tool is designed to help create visually appealing and interactive infographics with ease. Although I have some experience using InDesign, a commonly used design program, I often struggle to execute infographics. I can never quite get infographics to look as pretty as I want.

I was excited to test out infogr.am to see if it could solve all of my design problems forever. I created the graphic (left) based on real data I found in an article from the Columbia Tribune about public housing flat rate rental prices increasing. I am pitching a more in-depth version of the topic for my Convergence Reporting class this week, so I also was hoping to find a tool to help me finish a graphic a week before my deadline!

While the tool was pretty intuitive and quick to use (I made this in 15 minutes), I did run into a number of frustrations:

CONS:

  • Embed codes (like for a Google map) can’t be put into the graphic from other sources

  • Text size can’t be easily changed

  • Limited ability to change style and color once initial theme is picked

  • Limited graphic icon options

  • Interactive aspects of the graphic not working (The timer isn’t actually counting down)

  • Restrictions on text length for certain sections

I also found some things I like:

PROS:

  • Simple interface allows drag and drop and easy editing

  • Easy to use format

  • Saves a lot of time for simple graphics

  • Easily sharable

  • No design experience necessary

Overall, I had a mixed experience with this tool. I ended up with a graphic that looks pretty nice considering it took me less than 15 minutes to make. In comparison, it probably would have taken me an hour or more at my skill level to make something similar on a program like InDesign. I also don’t know how to make charts using Illustrator, so this tool is a great option for a design dummy like me. On the other hand, I could see this tool being really frustrating for a more complicated graphic. Throughout the creation process, I found myself having to work around options the tool didn’t have. For example, I couldn’t figure out how to label parts of a pie chart the way I wanted so I opted for a text section instead. This tool is a really easy option for a simple graphic that needs to be done quickly. However, I would argue this tool is meant to be visually appealing more than it is meant to illustrate complicated numbers and data sets. Use infogr.am if you’re in a hurry and need something that will do in a short amount of time, but look to your InDesign or Illustrator guru to help you make a more meaningful graphic that explains more complicated data.

J/i Day Two as told by Storify

Journalism Interactive concluded last night, and I am almost exhausted by how much I learned from the weekend. Day two was made up of breakout and teaching sessions that each gave an in-depth look at innovative ways to think about and teach journalism.

My favorite session today was a panel on entrepreneurship that featured a live pitch contest. The session discussed how important having an entrepreneurial mindset is, especially as journalism and its revenue model is rapidly changing. The session was only one reminder of my interests in journalism and new media techniques. I can’t wait to get back to Mizzou to test out everything I have learned!

Check out my Storify summary of day two of the conference here:

https://storify.com/SarahDarby/j-i-day-two.html

J/i Day One

Day one of Journalism Interactive is wrapping up at the University of Maryland, concluding a full day of presentations on topics ranging from emerging tech trends to teaching strategies. This day was packed with new ideas and interesting discussions. Check out some takeaways from a few of the sessions today:

9:15 a.m. “The Future of Visual Storytelling”

Journalism Interactive kicked off this morning with this presentation about digital and visual storytelling from Richard Koci Hernandez, journalism professor at UC Berkley. Hernandez told the audience he would share 15 semesters worth of information about visual storytelling, and he certainly promised on his goal of providing a wealth of information. I particularly enjoyed how this talk praised risk taking in journalism. Hernandez encouraged experimentation and original thinking.

Takeaways:

  • The Internet is not a dumping ground for media created for other platforms
  • Web is its own platform
  • Visual journalism does not exist on a single canvas
  • Creative approach is more important than skill and technique

Favorite quotes:

“I’m not making you a designer, I’m making you a design thinker.”

“The edge, the secret sauce to mastery is not waiting for perfection, instead, start where you are with reckless abandon.”

“It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

Tools to try:

  • Timeline JS – interactive timeline tool
  • visual.ly – Visual content sharing space
  • X WordPress Theme – User friendly, interactive WordPress theme that minimizes required code knowledge

10:30 a.m. “Top Tech Trends for Academics”

Following the opening session, digital strategist Amy Webb gave a fantastic presentation about tech trends. I have read a number of her predictions about tech trends through classes and on my own, so I was particularly excited for her talk. Webb challenged the audience to embrace emerging tech trends in order to better engage an audience. Webb’s talk was by far my favorite presentation given today.

Key tech trends:

1) Tech first versus digital first – Essentially, all journalism organizations should already be digital first, and to be truly innovative, organizations must embrace new technology. Being digital first alone doesn’t acknowledge consumer behavior, competitors and new revenue streams, for example.

2) Anticipatory computing – New search tools will analyze previous search conversation and context in order to predict and deliver calculated search results to an audience.

3) Robo journalism – “Bots” can be utilized to generate basic news stories to save reporters writing time for in-depth pieces, and computer assisted editing can analyze long news stories and generate summarized versions of the most important information.

4) Computational reporting – Tools such as WolframAlpha can be utilized to provide more complete, data-driven search results that can aid reporting.

5) Aggressive versioning – Content should be delivered based on situation and individual, instead of just device. For instance, tools can deliver different versions of the same story according to how fast a person is walking with their device (which indicates how much they want to read of a story).

6) Experiential journalism – Simulation devices can be used to actually place a reader in a story like never before.

Recommendations to journalism professors:

1) Open source journalism – Students and faculty would both benefit from better communication between schools and more open source projects.

2) Show students more options – Faculty should better acknowledge non-traditional media outlets, and prepare and inform students of job opportunities in those companies.

3) Market yourselves better – Journalism schools must embrace technology fully and not just create “trendy” classes in order to attract highly intelligent students with an interest in tech.

Favorite quotes:

“Smart kids want tech degrees because j-schools don’t make journalism sound interesting.”

“It makes no sense to fail a student for one AP Style error. Make them worry about something else.”

3 p.m. “News Startups and Innovators Panel”

The afternoon session of day one of the conference, allowed participants to choose their own adventure. This startup panel peaked my interest with its combination of journalists and entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial journalism is an area I want to learn as much about as possible, and this panel offered a variety of interesting perspectives. The panel featured speakers from Trove, Newspeg and InfoActive, all startups.

Takeaways:

  • News startups are easy to start because they are cheap and business advice is easily acceptable. However, news startups are hard to sustain because finding an audience and making money is difficult.
  • Entrepreneurship may not be for everyone, but all journalists can benefit from the relentless testing, thoughtful decision making and business knowledge entrepreneurs have.

Tools to try:

  • Trove – Compiles news stories based around interest of reader and recommended by users
  • Newspeg – Acts as a sort of Pinterest for news stories, allowing stories to be “pegged” to site
  • InfoActive – Creates interactive infographics for complex and ongoing data sets

These takeaways highlight just a few of the new ideas I learned about today. I also attended sessions on social metrics, digital teaching strategies and algorithms. So many ideas and conversations happened today!

To follow more of the conversation, check out the conference on Twitter @JIConf and #JIConf.

 

Journalism Interactive 2014

Screenshot from Journalism Interactive

This weekend, I have the incredible opportunity to attend the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland. The conference was founded in 2011 by the aforementioned school’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and has since expanded into a partnership with the University of Florida and the University of Missouri.

The conference has a little bit of everything concerning journalism education and digital media, and it has a particularly exciting entrepreneurial focus this year. The conference’s website states its goals as follows:

  • Advancing the national discourse about how journalism schools are preparing students for a rapidly changing industry
  • Expanding the knowledge of media educators through training in digital media teaching strategies and technologies
  • Creating a community of journalism educators engaged in teaching and using digital media and providing them with meaningful networking opportunities to share teaching strategies and techniques

Throughout the weekend, I will share key takeaways as I can. I will also be sure to post pictures and multimedia if possible, including an excited selfie when I see digital strategist Amy Webb speak live Friday! Follow the fun along with me this weekend on my blog!

Vlog tips from a first time vlog-er

Video blogging is one of those skills that at first seems easy but turns out to be very difficult. On YouTube, any number of Internet stars make their popularity look as easy as having a functional camera and 20 minutes of free time to film a short video. I had never really thought much about the work behind a video blog until professor Jim Flink, also Newsy’s vice president of news, talked to my Emerging Media class. Flink had a number of great tips for video blogging:

  • Think conversation not presentation
  • Real emotion works best
  • Authenticity is key
  • Every motion that is small will look big
  • Emotions are magnified
  • Move your eyes as you would in a conversation

Shortly after Flink came to talk to my class, we found out we would have a one time opportunity to film a mock “talk show” in the RJI studio. Overall the taping was a very exciting experience. It was particularly valuable to consider what makes a news video blog successful. After my experience I have my own list of tips to add to Flink’s list:

DO

  • Be knowledgable on the discussion topic
  • Stay conversational and natural
  • Glance bank at the camera occasionally
  • Dress and primp accordingly
  • Match the feel of your audience
  • Provide value
  • Avoid overly colloquial speech
  • Avoid overly formal speech

DON’T

  • Forget the camera completely
  • Touch your face excessively
  • Slouch
  • Monopolize the conversation

Most importantly, DON’T forget your medium. A video blog is very different from a TV broadcast. A YouTube audience looks to vlogs for niche information or conversations that the 5 p.m. newscast can’t provide. As a video blogger, it is your job to provide valuable information the viewer cannot get anywhere else. For news vlogs in particular, content must be of especially high quality to attract viewers away from other entertaining online videos. To me, the value you bring is the most important part.

What do you think is most important in a video blog? How can news sites engage viewers on YouTube?

Watch “This week’s tech and journalism trends:”