UX Research | The Seattle Times - Young Seattle and Local News
Team Members: Sarah Outhwaite, Alex Pham and Anmol Anubhai
Role: UX Researcher. Used a combination of qualitative research methods such as culture probe kits, semi-structured interviews (with experts, journalists and young readers) as well as workshops with journalists to learn about the information seeking behavior of millennials/young readers and journalists' perceptions of their readers. Made affinity boards, distilled insights and designed synthesis models.
Mentors: Prof. Michael Smith, Frank Mina (Design Director @ The Seattle Times) and Thomas Wilburn (Newsroom Web Developer @ The Seattle Times)
Duration: March 2015 - Present
Disruption from digital technology has led to substantial drops in revenue over the last two decades, stemming from a decrease in both print subscriptions and advertising profits. In the United States, daily print circulation decreased by 10% between 2015 and 2016 (Pew Research Center, 2017).
Newspapers compete directly with large tech organizations including Google, Facebook, and Apple for reader attention and financial support. Digital media has redefined information distribution, and personal tech devices have changed the landscape of information seeking behavior. In the midst of all these changes, what is the value in supporting regional papers like The Seattle Times? Regional newspapers are essential for the health of our neighborhoods, cities, and countries.
Local news supplies crucial information for civic engagement. Without it, local communities face increased challenges understanding and cooperating with each other, and advocating for their neighborhoods. We began our research with The Seattle Times by focusing on its importance as an independent, regional organization, and the future of local news.
As the print subscription base ages, the organization wants to develop subscription relationships with the younger generation. This population is immersed in digital news and digital communication. We investigated industry baselines and millennial behaviors to better understand opportunities in this area.
Secondary Research | Information Seeking Behavior
We conducted a literature review to better understand the journalism industry and information-seeking behavior. Studies conducted before the digital era helped us identify disrupted vs. enduring aspects of today’s news landscape, including the importance of unpredictability and variety in keeping readers engaged, and the way that young people’s media consumption changes as they move into adulthood (Finn, 1997).
We also considered the roots of information-seeking behavior. This can have goal-oriented triggers, like product comparison or decision-making, but it can also be triggered by emotional patterns such as assuaging generalized anxiety, or seeking a surrogate for social connection (Case, 2002, Chapter2).
We began to consider what The Seattle Times provided to its readers not in terms of traditional news categories, but in terms of information itself. However, certain information-seeking behaviors have evolved with digital technology, and the news industry is in the middle of redefining its best practices. NPR identifies the difference between what journalists think is important, and what information actually makes a difference to its audience: “The news peg might be important to us as journalists, but the data suggest our listeners are more interested in why the story matters to them.” (Charney and Deprey,2017)
Secondary Research | Digital Generation
We investigated recent research on millennials news behaviors. Smartphones as a dominant force in young readers’ lives, and reinforce preferences for media choice, variety, and control. Millennials are an “extremely diverse, locally engaged group,” with genuine interest in incisive journalism (Jacobs Media, 2017).
They generally enjoy reading more than watching news, and encounter content serendipitously in social media. This ends up exposing them to more news and broader perspectives than they seek directly (Perez, 2016).
According to the American Press Institute, young digital readers tend to consume news in an “often continuous but mindful way...which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment,” rather than through discrete engagement with news providers. At the same time, 45% of millennials follow multiple “hard news” topics, and 69% of millennial get news at least once a day (Media Insight Project, 2015).
Secondary Research | Constructive Journalism
Finally, we explored the growing movement of Constructive Journalism in the news industry. After many decades of creating a strong separation between objective and editorialized news, some organizations are beginning to explore the curation of good or feel-good news. During a competitive assessment of contemporary news products, we saw that the New York Times along with multiple digital news sites and aggregator apps was beginning to curate sections of positive news, responding directly to the emotional component of information-seeking behavior.
Millennials want meaningful, impactful news, and local news provides channels for actionable information engagement. We see opportunities for The Seattle Times to build strong relationships with its younger, digital readership. We needed to figure out what stood in the way of this.
As we began to speak with The Seattle Times staff about processes and practices, the problem of not understanding audience needs and identities came up repeatedly. Reporters, editors, and designers were passionate about creating meaningful content that spoke to their readers.
However, they did not have the time or processes to connect with the people they wanted to reach - young and diverse people who do not yet subscribe to the paper. We began to think about what it would take to change this dynamic. We formed our research questions to better understanding the relationships between audience and journalists.
After conducting thorough secondary research, we decided to focus on the below mentioned research questions and goals.
- How does The Seattle Times decide what to cover, and how it will be covered?
- How does the newsroom get information about what its readers find valuable, and what have they learned from this?
- What information about readers does the staff feel would help them create better content?
- What do young Seattleites think of the Seattle Times and other local news sources?
- What motivates young Seattleites to seek local news information in their daily lives?
- How well-informed about local news do young Seattleites feel, and what areas do they wish they knew more about?
What does young Seattle believe makes news worth reading and supporting? What characteristics define an ideal news experience
How do previous experiences create expectations about the news industry, as well as relationships with individual news sources?
Understand young Seattleite’s relationships to different neighborhoods, and how connected or disconnected they feel from local communities.
Our participants came from two distinct groups of people: 1) Journalists 2) Millennials
Participant Recruitment | Journalists
The first group of participants came from The Seattle Times staff, with a focus on journalists, editors, and graphic designers. We recruited journalists with the help of our sponsors, who put us in touch with their teams. We recruited 6 journalists for semi-structured interviews and a design workshop. We made sure that we interviewed individuals who held different job positions at the Times:
- Newsroom design director
- Graphic designer
- Newsroom/product liaison
- Engagement editor
Participant Recruitment | Millennials
For our second group we focussed on young Seattleites, or “millennials”. More specifically, we targeted millennials who were beyond the age of undergraduate education (which has its own unique information ecosystem) but not old enough to have fully settled into their communities. Although this age cutoff may seem arbitrary, it allowed us to access a specific stage of life articulated by our secondary sources.
All our participants met the following criteria:
- Aged 22-30
- Currently live in the Seattle area
In addition, we wanted our participants to range from transplants to natives. We defined the terms as follows:
- Transplants - Have lived in the Seattle area for less than 5 years
- Natives - Born and raised in the Seattle area
Finally, we recruited all our participants from different zip codes. We designed an invitation for our culture probes activity. We posted a digital version of our invite along with the link to our recruitment survey on social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn. We also printed physical copies of our invitation and handed them out at public events including concerts and meet-ups.
The graph indicates the neighborhoods that our participants came from (participants' names have been changed). The graph also shows the number of years that each participant has been staying in Seattle for - ranging from 0 to 10+ years.
Our study approach focussed on learning about our participants’ subconscious as well as conscious information-seeking behavior and needs. We realized that asking participants directly about their daily news habits might lead to inaccurate responses.
Hence, we decided to incorporate a set of culture probe activities specifically designed to understand their tacit information seeking behavior and perceptions of news sources today.
- The creative nature of culture probes allowed us to observe our participants‘s behavior in a spontaneous and organic way.
- Semi-structured interviews let us ask specific questions about the reader’s news consumption habits and preferences, and about journalist‘s opinions on their own processes and readers’ needs.
- A design workshop with the Seattle Times staff let us hear journalists’ responses to culture probes, and how concrete information about readers might help their work.
- Observations at The Seattle Times let us create a baseline for the general rhythm of communication in the newsroom.
Research Method | Culture Probes
Data gathered: A box of varied artifacts and texted images, audio recording, notes
The purpose of implementing ‘Culture Probes’ was to familiarize ourselves with our participants’ tacit needs and motivations behind seeking information. These are the key points that we learnt from the article - “Culture Probes and the value of Uncertainty” by William Gaver, Andrew Boucher, Sarah Pennington and Brendan Walker as well as “Cultural Probes” by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti:
- Culture Probes must include open ended activities that motivate users to step outside their boundaries and to give surprising yet genuine answers (Purely fiction based abstract activities are also encouraged)
- Researchers should never try to analyze culture probe results by trying to find common trends that occur in all participants’ sets of results. This might lead to them averaging all responses and might cause them the loss of important individual details
- While culture probes are great to learn more about the users, designers should never use them directly to inform their design decisions. They are tools to help learn more about the users and shouldn’t be used as the only research method to inform design decisions
- Adopting a certain style of art while designing the boxes and its articles is preferable
The activity, itself, was a week-long passive activity with millennial recruits. Participants were not told that we are specifically working with The Seattle Times. Participants engaged in a six-day activity in which they were asked to complete a different creative activity every day. Prompts were delivered to them on a daily basis, and participation was flexible (ex. if they skip one day they can do it later, or just complete the activities that interest them). The form factor of the prompt was inspired by a subscription box.
At the end of the the week, we met participants in person to collect their probe artifacts. Discussing these artifacts became an ice-breaker that then lead into a semi-structured interview.
Culture Probe Activity 1 | Slice of Life
'Text us pictures of the things around you that you are really curious to learn more about! You have 5 minutes to text us as many pictures as you would like :D’
- The goal of this activity was to learn about their places and topics of interest. We wanted to learn about their places of interest that occur to them most naturally without them having to process or think a lot about their choices. They were free to use any sources to get these images (screenshots were allowed as well). They texted us these images.
Culture Probe Activity 2 | Dear Diary
“Send us pictures of all the information/news pieces that you learnt about in the last 24 hours! :) Please keep the order sequential!”
- The goal behind this activity was to understand the types of news topics, genres as well as sources that our participants find interesting and choose to read in a period of 24 hours.
Culture Probe Activity 3 | Media Madness
‘Pit the news outlets against each other. Imagine the news outlets are sports teams. Put them in the brackets, and then start filling in who you think would win each “game” down to who would win a final face off. What’s the criteria for winning? Make up your own!’
- The idea behind the media madness bracket, which was modeled after march madness, was to better understand what news sources and agencies are preferred by the millennials using a fun, simple and relatable exercise.
- We provided the printed cards with a brief on how to play media madness. This was to ensure that our users who haven’t created a march madness bracket before, which is what media madness is modeled after, can easily engage in this activity as well.
Culture Probe Activity 4 | News Zoo
‘What if all our different news sources were animals! Who would be a squirrel? Who would be a lion? Who would be a skunk? :D Use the provided color pencils and paper to imagine and draw different each news source as the animals of your choice! Set your imagination free! Remember to be crazy.’
- The goal behind this activity was to learn more about how participants perceive different news sources and their impressions of them. We provided an activity card along with color pencils and paper.
Culture Probe Activity 5 | Color your city
Color your city - Heat Map of Interests
- Participants were provided with an outline map of Seattle, a legend of categories and color pencils. The goal was to understand our participant’s familiarity with Seattle and its different neighborhoods.
Culture Probe Activity 6 | Write your own headline
‘You want to make people read about your neighborhood. Write your own news headline for a real or fictitious event that happened in your neighborhood. Remember your goal is to make people want to read about your neighborhood :D’
- This could be make believe or something that happened. The goal was to understand how they would like news to be told to them or how can we better connect with our participants. This activity also highlighted information about neighborhoods that our participants found interesting. We understood their style of communication. We provided them with paper, pencils and an activity card.
Research Method | Semi Structured Interviews | Millennials
Data gathered: Audio recording, notes
The semi-structured interviews with our Millennial Participants took place after they completed the cultural probes. The purpose of the semi-structured interviews was to ask specific questions about the readers’ news consumption habits and what triggered them to seek news. In addition, we wanted to know what their thoughts on different news sources were and what the emotional experience of reading news for them was like.
Some of the questions that we chose to focus on were:
- What surprised you about these activities?
- What activities did you struggle with?
- What is your media diet like?
- What is your take on the Seattle news scene?
- Do you subscribe to any news sources?
- How do you react to paywalls?
Research Method | Semi Structured Interviews | Journalists
Data gathered: Notes, audio recordings
Another one of our activities was semi-structured interviews with 6 Seattle Times staff members. The goal of the interviews was to get a deeper perspective on how decisions are made in the Seattle Times newsroom, what the information the newsroom understands as valuable to readers, and what information the staff members would find valuable about their readers recorded with the permission of the participant.
Research Method | Design Workshops with journalists
Data gathered: audio recording, notes
The goal of the workshop was to present our culture probe findings as well as observe the way the journalists choose to perceive and interpret our participants’ responses. We began by explaining the significance of the culture probes method. We then handed each of them a culture probe box.
We used the ‘person in a box’ metaphor to encourage our journalists to go through their allotted participant’s responses. We then asked them to share their ‘Known Knowns’, ‘Known Unknowns’ and ‘Unknown unknowns’ with fellow journalists as well as write them on yellow sticky notes and put them up on our posters.
They then further investigated their participant’s responses after which they briefly presented their perceptions to fellow journalists. We then encouraged them to discuss about what they would like to change and what they would not like to change about their current processes at the Times after having studied the responses.
Data Synthesis | Affinity Board Making
We used yellow stickies to put up all our findings and then reorganized them according to emerging themes. You can see a short glimpse of us working on our affinity board below.
We distilled the below given insights from our affinity boards.
Journalists don’t know how to define metrics for reader engagement - and readers don’t know how to define what they find engaging either. Nobody knows what a “successful news outcome” is.
“Journalists now ask themselves questions such as - ‘What is going on the web? What is the trending topic on social media? How should we frame an article so that readers will click on it?”
“I just skim through headlines on news apps because I feel overwhelmed and do not have time to read long articles.”
Short, fast digital news formats create challenges for readers trying to remember interesting series/stories, which becomes an impediment to building relationships with a news source.
"It's hard for me to remember how long she has been following Amazon Story"
For News Sites that don't have a phone app he tries to remember author, name, to look for articles later
The value of local news is unclear to readers unless they have a way to act upon it
“If it is about my city then I am super interested.”
“Seattle Times tells me about local events after they are over.”
Young Seattleites desire to see news from others’ perspectives as a way to counterbalance for their own bias, and the bias of news sources
“If people aren't reporting objectively, then why can't anyone just go out and do that? “
“I am really globally minded. I want to know what's going on in the world and not just what's going on from the eyes of an "American"
The Times thinks about representing local populations but has no systematic methods
"Journalists that have the same background as me would provide authenticity”
Good journalism means serving the underserved
Reporters have experience getting detailed information about people and environments through sources, but these skills are not put to use understanding readership.
"A lot of people basically write for the idea that the reader is like them"
"You form a bunch of different relationships with people and these sources can take you off to different ideas"
Synthesis Model | Value Maps
We created value maps to synthesize our participant findings in terms of our three research goals:
- Values: What young Seattle believes makes news worth reading and supporting. The characteristics that define an ideal news experience.
- Perceptions: How previous experiences create expectations about the news industry, as well as relationships with individual news sources.
- Local Relationships: Young Seattle’s relationships to different neighborhoods, and how connected or disconnected they feel from local communities.
This helped us characterize three distinct relationships that our participants had to Seattle and its local news:
- CLOSE - KNIT COMMUNITY
- INDEPENDENT THINKER
- NON - NATIVE COMMUNITY
We also made a user-journey map that shows a reader's interactions with news (using different platforms and mediums) on a regular weekday
We also made an ecosystem map that shows all the interactions between the newsroom, news products and the readers. The map also shows the relationships that the three share.
For the process ahead, we decided to keep the below listed design principles in mind while ideating and designing the solution ahead.
- BRIDGING GAPS: Help journalists present news value in the way that readers understand it
- INDIVIDUALITY: Respect both journalist and readers’ individual values
- PRIVACY: Respect reader’s privacy, even in situations when personalizing experiences
- RESOURCES: Be mindful of the resource scope of an independent newspaper
- PROFESSIONAL VALUE: Design in support of professional journalism and local news
- INFLUENCE: Design to show the influence of news on local populations
We intend to further explore the below mentioned design opportunities while ideating.
Design Opportunities | Readers Feeling Overwhelmed
We identified multiple aspects of the digital news experience that left readers feeling overwhelmed, and see an opportunity to make the news reading experience less exhausting. Readers first choose from multiple news sources and then multiple news articles.
Some participants mentioned that they do not have the time to read long articles, and end up just skimming through headlines instead. Cutting long articles short also impacted their ability to remember or save certain stories and return to them later. They mentioned wanting to read news on topics of their interest (Seeking Curated News). They detest sensationalism.
Design Opportunities | Creating Actionable Local News
We see an opportunity to help The Seattle Times more consistently communicate the relevance that local news has to individual readers’ lives. Participants mentioned that they want news that begins conversations in their community. They want to be told about events before they happen (speed of local news is a crucial parameter).
They wish to hear both sides of a story (they seek objectivity). They need to be able to connect with the relevance of local news and see its significance in their own lives.
Design Opportunities | Paywalls
Although paywalls had a significant impact on our participants’ news experience, this is not an opportunity space for our team’s design. Participants mentioned that they detest paywalls and do not like to return to the news source once they encounter a paywall. However, this problem requires changes in the revenue structure and certain policy related changes.
We also identified existing tools that may help The Seattle Times solve paywall experience issues. Thus, as a team we decided to not work within this space.