A Trend to Watch: ‘Reader-Aware’ and ‘Responsive Content’

Right now we’re focused on responsive design. Perhaps after that comes responsive content.

If you’re a reader of Nieman Reports, you’ll remember the cover story from early this fall, “Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism.” Nieman Fellow David Skok along with James Allworth co-wrote the piece with Clay Christensen, one of Harvard’s brilliant and popular business faculty.

One of Christensen’s main areas of academic focus is the concept of disruptive innovation and competition in business; this widely-shared article applied Christensen’s analysis – which has helped revitalize numerous businesses before his years academia – to the news industry, where an understood problem is figuring out how to survive and how to thrive.

(If you open that link and think “TL;DR,” Nieman Lab has a short glimpse into what the article addresses.)

For moving towards a discussion the “responsive content” teased in the lede, let’s stick with the first half of the Skok, Allworth and Christensen article, the part which addresses knowing your audience (a favorite topic of mine). One of the main questions Christensen always asks, and one that is applied to journalism in Nieman Reports: What “job” are your customers “hiring” you to do? When you buy a product, or you use a service, you’re picking something for a particular reason—it fills a particular need or want. Whatever you choose fills a job to be done.

To briefly illustrate the point, you make a choice based on the job to be done when hiring an employee, but you also do it in tasks like choosing what furniture store to visit. Are you looking for the perfect antique couch to fit a particular room, or – like a regular Christensen example – are you just looking to furnish a room quickly and efficiently and would rather just go to IKEA? We hire different services or products to fit different purposes.

Translating this analysis to the world of journalism, you also pick something to hire when deciding what to read. You even do this in deciding whether to read. Take for example the open moment during breakfast.

Your choice between The Wall Street Journal in print, New York Times on your iPad or whatever you see on Twitter on your phone  — or nothing at all — is a decision you make to fill a job. Notably, like hiring an employee, there are many elements that influence your news-hiring over your oatmeal. Accessibility, desire for a particular form of knowledge or skill, looks—we value them differently. They all work together, but we place certain values on certain elements. That scale helps influence our decision in picking something. I may pick WSJ in print (because of social media’s A1 problem), but someone else my age may very well just look at Twitter. My roommate may rather just enjoy sitting and eating his scrambled eggs in peace, with no news in front of him at all.

That’s one example. This “job-hire” lens for analysis can be used to help evaluate some critical problems in news right now. And in some cases, it arguably already is. At least to some extent.

Designers are beginning to understand the “job-hire” question, for instance, even if they don’t call it that. We tend to like pretty things. At the onset of mobile devices, not everything looked pretty on every device. As a result, not everything was easy to read on every device. News being difficult to read makes it difficult for journalists to achieve their goals: informing the public. It creates a barrier. It makes it harder for the job to be done.

But now that more and more devices are being used to consume news, the journalism industry is recognizing the need to make content display smoothly across multiple platforms. This is the idea of “responsive design,” designing your display online to readily fit not just on a computer monitor, but also a tablet, a phone and anything else.  We’re “hiring” news content to read when we’re on different devices, and we want whatever we’re reading to be pretty (read: most readable, displayed most appropriately for the platform). Responsive design helps better do the job news is being hired for on different devices.