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.

That said, responsive design isn’t doing the entire job. We want things to be pretty on all our devices, but that’s likely not the only factor that goes into why we hire something. My roommate may think an iPad app is gorgeous, but let me tell you, that isn’t what’s going to make him pick it up and fill an open moment. Like hiring an employee, there are other more influential elements.

To better understand what may make us hire news on a particular mobile device, let’s remember that we’re not using all our devices the same way. Responsive design does not address the jobs to be done in each location we consume news. News consumption can happen in many places now, yes, and we thank responsive design for making the process easier for us. But if the product remaining the same across platforms may create the bigger problem.

Let’s look at how someone may interact with news during any given day:

  • People may read news on their phone when they wake up.
  • They may look at a newspaper over breakfast.
  • They may read their phone or listen to the radio on their commute into work.
  • They may check a news website at work.
  • They may check their phone at lunch.
  • They may check Twitter at work in the afternoon.
  • They may or may not read anything on the commute back, instead deciding to sleep.
  • They may watch TV while getting dinner ready.
  • They may check Facebook while hanging with friends in the evening.
  • They may read an iPad before going to bed.

Are we really looking for the same thing during all those moments? For most of those moments, the current content is likely the same (or largely so). News probably caters up the most recent development, regardless of the context in which it is consumed. But is the most recent development what we really want? Particularly if a person only partakes in one or two of those news consumption moments?

The second half of Christensen’s main question essentially is, “What job are your customers looking to hire someone for, and can you be in a good position to fit the bill?” This may be the major analysis tool moving forward. How can we better serve the news for context?

Is there a better way to fit a particular reader’s habits, to do a better job that a reader may want to hire you more for? Some groups are working at that problem. This is essentially what the team that redesigned the tech blog Pando Daily is looking to do, for example, according to a product design and development firm XOXCO designer Ben Brown’s post on the project. Brown shares some same sentiments: we’re device-aware, but perhaps not yet “reader-aware.”

Instead of nervously reloading our favorite blogs throughout the day, we might choose to read the news once a day, in the evening on our tablet. Or, we might check catch up via e-reader a few times a week while offline on the train. These different reading contexts give us clues as to how the person is using the site, and what sort of content makes most sense to present.

Presenting everything as a reverse chronological stream of posts made sense when we knew our readers were sitting at a desk, hitting reload on 30 tabs all day long at work. Does it still make sense when content arrives on an e-paper watch, an Xbox or a tiny slip of paper?

Brown outlines some of the steps to adjust to this new consumption to better do the job for the reader, too:

Regular readers will soon notice “New” flags appearing in Pando Daily’s “Ticker” to indicate the content that’s been published since their last visit. We’ll be bubbling up featured content from the archives personalize for each reader. And I am particularly proud of the weekly recap footer, which, by simply using the :visited CSS pseudo class, helps a reader get a birds eye view of the week’s news.

Here’s a screen-grab of that footer:

This is just one example of designing the display of content in a way that isn’t just the newest thing on top of the slightly older thing, a common practice for news organizations right now and the core of the newsfeed we’re used to on social media. It’s a very “reader-centric” design, and if the reader wants to hire something for a job other than only presenting the most recent story, it’s probably encouraging.

For those who are interested in the technical side of how to make platforms more “reader-aware” right now (without logins!), Brown offers some helpful thoughts in his post. UPDATE: He also just released Aware.js, a jQuery plugin that applies techniques from responsive design to helps identify reader contexts.

For everyone, this is a trend to watch. It’s very possible we’ll see more conversation how to do the job of journalism better by utilizing factors of device and setting, by using factors of time and space to influence the content we churn up. At the very least, it’s a conversation worth having.