Posted by: structureofnews | October 14, 2011

Familiarity Breeds… Use?

There’s a smart, provocative post at Poynter by Chase Davis and Matt Wynn about pushing news apps to the next level – turning them into real products instead of news-related content.

Most news apps are still largely subordinate to the narrative story. They’re coupled to the news cycle. From a revenue standpoint, their contribution is to draw eyeballs. Interest peaks on launch day, and a few days later they’re all but dead, fodder for the rare user that stumbles over them. Sound like any other content you’ve seen?

That’s thinking that near and dear to the ideas and issues behind structured journalism, but Chase and Matt take it a step further:  Not just getting away from the notion that the story (or narrative) is the centerpiece of any journalistic enterprise, or that we should build content that persists, but to really think about news apps as means to solving real-world problems, divorced in some cases from news content.  They point to the business opportunities in doing that, but there are also just as many lessons here in terms of how to make data useful – and used – by ordinary people.

They mention as examples recollect, an app that helps people remember when to put out the trash; myFault, which lets people know how specific locations in California could be affected by earthquakes; and Curbwise, which gives users information they can use to challenge their home valuation, among other things.

These products and others like them required a different way of looking at what we do. They’re informed by the story, even lifted up by the story, but they’re not tied to the story. They could stand alone. In some cases, they make money. And that opens up a world of possibilities we’ve only begun to consider.

I’m sure there will be heated debates about how much of this is journalism, or how much energy news organizations should devote to such efforts.  Regardless of how that discussion plays out, it’s definitely worth embracing the problem-solving/user-centric view of news apps Chase and Matt expouse.

Too many news apps – or visualized databases, or whatever we call them – consist of throwing up data online with some kind of search or exploratory interface.  It’s helpful to be able to pick through details, of course, but often they aren’t designed with the user’s needs foremost. (As Matt Waite, one of the creaters of Politifact, noted a while back there are too many “data ghettos” where loads of data is thrown up but with little regard for how or why people might go there.

After we developed WhoRunsHK at the South China Morning Post, it became clear to me that, while it was a great app and a nice step forward in visualizing information, it wasn’t immersive enough to really draw people in.  Fixing that requires working out more detailed “use cases” for how people would approach the site.  Next time.

Part of the problem for this and other news apps are simply that we haven’t yet developed broadly-accepted conventions of how to explore data – so non-geeks (and even geeks) have to learn how to use each app individually.  Imagine if every narrative story employed different conventions – you’d have to adapt to every story, and reading would quickly become a chore.  Another analogy:  Try watching an old movie, and see how slow it feels compared to the speed of editing cuts in the post-MTV world.  Viewers got used to new visual conventions over time – but it took time.  Trying to get a 1930s audience to follow the jump cuts in “Breathless” would be tough.

Nieman Labs’ Megan Garber highlighted this point in a recent post about how Wikipedia became successful while other attempts to build crowd-sourced reference sites failed.

One answer, which seems obvious only in retrospect: Wikipedia attracted contributors because it was built around a familiar product — the encyclopedia. Encyclopedias aren’t just artifacts; they’re also epistemic frames. They employ a particular — and, yet, universal — approach to organizing information. Prior to Wikipedia, online encyclopedias tried to do what we tend to think is a good thing when it comes to the web: challenging old metaphors, exploding analog traditions, inventing entirely new forms.

In other words, don’t stray too far from your users and what they’re used to/can adapt to.  Perhaps one reason that Politifact is successful is that it doesn’t look like a data-driven app, although to some extent that’s what it is.  It looks like a site with stories on it, and people are used to that frame.

It’s a hard takeaway, in many ways:  Be innovative, but not so much that people can’t easily follow.  Still, it’s an important lesson if we want our apps to be used as much as be ground-breaking.


  1. […] agreed grammar of data visualization than there is certainly for text narratives. That’s why giving readers hooks they’re familiar with can bring them into a piece; and adopting digital game techniques might be able to suck them in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: