Ask not what consumers can do for news, ask news what it can do for the consumer

If there is anything I have learned over the last few weeks it is that the consumer is king. Through my various experiences with entrepreneurship and conversations with entrepreneur Diana Kander, this point has been pushed above all others. So this week I decided to see if I could learn a thing or two about how people consume news on their phones, by, well, talking to a few strangers. I focused my questions on phone use habits to discover how people use their phones during free time. My hope was to gain some insight into the needs and desires of young phone users to have a better understanding of how news companies could target these people. I was especially interested in people my own age because I believe their news consumption will hugely impact the future of the industry.

Tanzi, 20

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Can you tell me about a time you had a free 10 minutes and were on your phone?

“Usually I go through Instagram or play 2048 because I can’t beat it. Or I’ll go on Twitter. I’m a j-school student and I follow a lot of accounts with news, but I don’t always click on the links.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“I like finding a different ways to connect with people and see what they’re doing and see if they’re close by. If I’m on the quad, I’ll post a picture of where I am. I want to share a part of my day with someone else.”

Why do you like to connect with people and share parts of your day?

“I’m a big experience culture person. Even though I’m an introvert, I like to know what people are doing with their life.”

What’s a problem that you have that you think news could solve?

“Sometimes I’ll be sitting and I’ll hear people talking about news, and then I’ll feel behind because I’m not caught up on it.”

Josh, 19

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Can you tell me about a time you had 10 minutes of free time and were on your phone?

“Usually I check my messages, but I don’t text all that much. Usually I’m trying to avoid looking like I’m not doing something, or I’m browsing the Internet.”

Why do you try to look like you’re doing something?

“It seems in today’s culture everyone has to look like they’re doing something. It’s socially awkward not to be doing anything.”

Why do you think it’s awkward?

“Maybe it’s just become the norm because everyone’s on their phones.”

Why do you think it’s the ‘norm?’

“I just don’t feel productive whenever I’m not doing something. Idle hands are the devil’s play things. Maybe I feel like I’m not progressing enough in life.”

Where do you get your news?

“Usually I go to Reddit because of the vote based system on what gets seen.”

Why do you pick that over local media?

“Well, the Missourian doesn’t really have people’s input. It’s not a community based thing that can rank its importance.”

What’s a news app you think you might use?

“An app or something with local events going on or summaries of world and local events.”

Emily, 19

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What do you do when you check your phone?

“I check up on Twitter and then when I get to the end of my feed, I’ll go on Pinterest.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“Twitter I visit because I follow things I enjoy. I don’t always tweet a lot, I’ll just read. Pinterest, I pin a lot of things and I have a lot of boards.”

Why do you like those sites?

“I really like books and movies, so anything that references those I enjoy, and I also enjoy anything that makes me laugh.”

How often do you read news?

“I don’t really read news. I guess it’s our generation. Sometimes I’ll see things on Twitter, but I don’t pay much attention.”

When you see news links on Twitter do you click on them?

“If it’s something I feel connected to or interested in I click on it, otherwise I just skip over it.”

What’s a problem in your life, big or small, you wish you could solve? How do you think an app could solve it?

“I’m bad with patience. So something that controls patience. Maybe an app that gives rewards for waiting.”


Although I only talked with three young students for a few minutes each, I learned quite a bit about their phone use habits. The thing that was most interesting to me was how technology seemed to be such a go to for people my age. Nearly everyone I saw on the quad was on a phone or computer. Yet, after I approached these people (A couple of them even had headphones in at the time), they warmly responded to my conversation and presence. Josh’s comments about the need to seem busy in today’s world were especially thought provoking.

News organizations have a huge opportunity to reach people on their phones. Like Josh said, people have a need, especially a social one, to solve the problem of free time using the technology immediately available to them. But even though these consumers were all alone when I talked with them, most of them were in pursuit of a social experience of some sort online. They had free time and they were by themselves, but they didn’t want to feel alone. It wasn’t acceptable to spend free time idly. What an opportunity for news.

Yet, every person I talked to didn’t primarily use their phones for news consumption. And, if they weren’t consuming news on their phones, they also weren’t consuming much news anywhere else. This is troubling because reading the paper used to be a socially acceptable and common way to solve the problem of free time. Now though consumers have an overwhelming amount of distractions to chose from. They want to feel connected to people and they want to pursue their interests. A plethora of social media sites target these needs well, and my generation is hooked. However, they’re not flocking to news apps like they are to social media sites.

I would have to talk to more people to further build research about phone habits, but the experience gave me some thoughts on how news organizations could better target millennials on their phones.

Ideas for news organizations:

  • Emphasis on social commenting platforms like Kinja
  • Competitive elements based around the news consumption (Ex: social consolation of some sort for winning a contest)
  • Tailored news according to location and previous searches
  • Convenience-designed mobile content (Ex: a feature story on a coffee shop that gets pushed to a phone when user is close by)
  • Elimination of paywalls (Paywalls, at least on a mobile phone, will turn users away from a “quick” experience)
  • Partnerships with other apps to include relevant news (Ex: money management tips from experts promoted under a news brand within a banking app)
  • Social emphasis on mobile apps (Ex: voting system exists within news app only)

How do you think news organizations should target millennial mobile users?


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.


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!