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Thoughts about a news algorithm

Amazon Recommendation system based on your personal profile
Last week I was reading a Wired article (March edition) about how the video rental service Netflix is awarding $1.000.000 to the person or group who can improve its recommendation algorithm by 10%.

Todays popular websites use smart algorithms to determine what we want or might like. Google is famous for its mix and so is the Amazon recommendation system. Your actions tell these systems about your behavior. And your actions make these services better in recommending you information. For example Google tracks what results people click. If most users click the second search result they make this the first result.

I love news selection
I really like how news websites, blogs and other person driven websites make a selection. Most often this works best if there is a sharp focus. A popular blog can’t be about everything. It has to be about a person or a subject to keep the blog interesting.

In the future this fragmentation might be happening to news websites as well. The traditional newspaper told you everything. It was your primary source of information. With websites we see a different pattern. People don’t just read one news website, they read many. They might have a favorite, but it is no such thing as exclusive readership. Will we see focus in newspaper websites as well? Although media operates independent it is almost always marked as ‘left’ or ‘right’ by the type of stories they focus on.

The news algorithm
Why wouldn’t news sorting be captured in algorithms? There is nothing that makes this impossible. Stories are written as closed interchangeable containers. News websites might make a selection on the frontpage, they also provide lists and rss-feeds where they sort the same information on time or popularity.

Journalists have multiple tasks, they create stories and they sort them on relevance. Maybe with this sorting we can experiment and create a more personal version as well?

Sorting news by machines
Sorting news is not just making a selection on popularity. Sorting news by systems is difficult. The presentation of what you like consists out a complex set of variables.

  • What do you like (personal interest)
  • What you might like (if you like a subject you might like to read about)
  • What do you need to know (because it is important to you, and it will dominate the media landscape for a while)
  • What everyone needs to know (breaking news)
  • What do you officially don’t like, but occasionally read (the stories everyone says they don’t read but always seem to get the highest click-through rates)
  • What do your friends (colleagues) read (news creates conversation and small-talk)
  • What do your friends recommend (you trust your network)
  • What you don’t want to know (things that really bore you and are irrelevant in any way)
  • Where do you like to know more about (if you are an expert in something you don’t want another article that explains it all again. You would prefer analysis and background articles)
  • What is your (current) location (for large groups of people location based information has extra value)
  • Surprises (they change your interests and habbits)

* If I forgot something please ad your thoughts in the comments

These are the variables that construct personal relevance of a news website. It’s a complex set, but if you can manage a good balance you are able to create a website that sorts news by personal relevance on another level than we are used to.

I don’t know if an algorithm can create a better news experience and what it should look like. I do think there is value in tracking and learning form your users behavior and return new or additional value to the reader.

Update: Concept Design

What this could look like and how you can keep this simple for the reader. The text is in Dutch. The screens ask for your location, favorite topics, company you work or would like to work and friends.

Featured Interface design Journalism Live Web Projects Usability

Reinventing the News Website ( is a new project where we are experimenting with new media, users, technology and journalism. This project is an open project where the public process plays an extremely valuable part in designing and shaping the news website.

The online news industry really changed over the last years. I think we’re at a point where every self respecting news organization takes the web as a serious medium that requires a different approach then previous media (newspaper, television, radio).

Some see these new possibilities as a threat and try to protect what they have. Which is I think the worst possible strategy (looking backwards into the future). Others see chances, new competitors, new technology, new journalism, new markets and new ideas.

I love a quote I heard in an interview with someone at the Washington Post. He said his ambition is to be the new CNN. With new media and technology this ambition is realistic. A company like the Washington Post (newspaper) can see CNN (television) as its competitor.

Google / AP
Google can be a news service. Why wouldn’t they? They have the database of intentions, Google knows what people are searching for and they can – like any other company – subscribe to press services. The value of press agency news is devaluating in a way that it often ends up in duplicate copies with a different lay-out. Try to search for an AP article headline. I’m sure you will find a dozen versions of it, all exactly the same.

Online news is moving to something where added value counts. What can you add to the news (omnipresent). Is it a personal or political view? Is it the selection you make? Is it a community? Are it your reporters or journalists? What is your added value?

In technology communities, collaboration tools and social networks are redefining most services and institutions. Why shouldn’t services and technology like this redefine how we consume news?

This is what is about. We want to experiment with everything around news from a practical point of view, let’s make things.

Wisdom of Crowds
The Wisdom of Crowds believes a group is smarter than the individual. The Wisdom of a crowd can be very valuable for news. In the public opinion the idea of a wiki collides with news. I think a wiki-based system can work for news if you make sure the process is transparent and everyone can join the discussion.

Sure you will have to deal with vandalism, this a technical problem to solve. A reader doesn’t have to be an expert on everything, the valuable wisdom of an individual can be something he has read or seen somewhere else. The Wisdom of a crowd is about all the knowledge, not just the expert knowledge. The biggest challenge is get the knowledge and use it as a contribution.

Traditional media floats on the wisdom of a few wise people who create value by the choices they make. Social media uses the wisdom of your network en wiki media taps into the wisdom of a crowd. All have advantages and disadvantages.

The design
For the design of this new website we also experiment. The most important object is the database, we designed the database from a view that almost everything is possible with the data. We store a lot of information that might be valuable in the future. This allows us to experiment freely with the design and think up new features. The database is the most valuable asset of a news organization.

The newsriver navigation
Newsriver concept
The newsriver is a principle that regards news as a continues flow of information, where you can hook in whenever you want (An RSS feed). For the first version of EN we are experimenting with this idea in the navigation. I don’t know if this is it, it’s different from the navigation we are used to. article newsriver concept

What we can do?
Almost everything. We can make mash-ups, feeds, aggregated pages (screenshot draft design below). Hook in to social networks, extend the wiki functionality, and more. Technically everything is possible.

What does the news site of the future look like? Join the debate and discussion here or in Dutch at

Draft theme page

Interactive Storytelling Interface design Picnic07

Interactive storytelling: The Whale Hunt by Jonathan Harris

The Whale Hunt by Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris has a very impressive portfolio with interactive projects. He’s an interactive storyteller and great visualizer. Last year I visited his talk at Picnic where he talked about his new project ‘The Whale Hunt‘. Today I discovered the project is public.

In May 2007 Jonathan lived for nine days with the Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow Alaska. Het went out hunting wales and documented his story in a wonderful interactive story.

“I documented the entire experience with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, beginning with the taxi ride to Newark airport, and ending with the butchering of the second whale, seven days later. The photographs were taken at five-minute intervals, even while sleeping (using a chronometer), establishing a constant “photographic heartbeat”. In moments of high adrenaline, this photographic heartbeat would quicken (to a maximum rate of 37 pictures in five minutes while the first whale was being cut up), mimicking the changing pace of my own heartbeat.”

The Whale Hunt by Jonathan Harris

Video: Jonathan Harris at TED 2007 about the Web’s secret Stories.

Interface design

How a personalized design improves ‘public’ interfaces

For a few months I’m using Gmail as my default e-mail client. It was actually the iMAP functionality that really convinced me to start using it. iMAP allows you to keep using your default e-mail application and at the same time you can also use your mobile phone or webmail. Once you have read or replied a message in one of the applications the other applications know what you have done with it. A centralized server, but different interfaces.

Make Gmail better
The unexpected thing happened that with my move to Gmail I also stopped using Mac Mail, the default mail application on Macintosh and one of my favorite applications. The Gmail web client just works very well.

The Gmail interface doesn’t look so great. It is clear, easy to use, the service is great, the mobile phone version is great, the spam filter is fantastic and it just does e-mail better.

Can Gmail be better? I think so, let me explain how after this example.

I love WordPress. I’m sure it is one of the best blog publishing platforms in the world, if not the best. I don’t know all the other platforms, I have tried a few. What makes WordPress unique is the back-end. The back-end of this platform is gone through a great evolution. The WordPress back-end fits the needs of most users, is extendible and it can connect with an API to other applications.

A classic thing to forget when developing a content management system is to design a usable back-end. Often a system evolves around functionality and a (often narrow) view of what the users should be allowed to do, instead of freedom to experiment and usability. I think how WordPress developed was very good for the back-end interface. Anyone can use it, advanced user or not.

Can WordPress be better? I think so.

Custom interfaces
We are getting used to customizing web interfaces. We drag rearrange widgets and choose personal themes. For example I’m using Veerle’s theme to brighten my Netvibes and since this week I can change the lay-out of iGoogle as well.

Wouldn’t it be great if WordPress and Gmail had easy to style interfaces?

There are hacks like Grease Monkey for Gmail and a plug-in for the WordPress admin. The problem with these hacks is they are hacks. They’re not supported by the provider. They don’t return value to the application, for mail your hacks are bound to a computer and as soon as something changes your hack needs to be updated.

Learn from design
Think about what would change if you could use simple CSS to build themes for Gmail or the WordPress admin. Designers would start playing with it because it is easy accessible and their design can reach a large group of users. Gmail and WordPress can keep directories in order to see what’s the most popular interface, the highest rated and the newest.

If a service provider wants to learn from their users they should enable them to use stylesheets and templates that make it possible rearrange all the objects and buttons in the interface. Maybe Gmail just works better when the navigation is at the top, split up or in the middle. Who knows?

We are getting used to choosing templates for our blogs and rss readers. It would be wonderful if we could start using templates for admin screens and e-mail interfaces.

The most popular interfaces tell you a lot about what your users want from your interface, with this free knowledge a provider can adapt the default interface and make it even better.

Interface design Sustainability

The effect of global warming on interface design

Al Gore in front of a globe

The care for earth as our only habitat, source of food and storage for waste did get our attention over the last years. And as with every major cultural or political movement it had effect on visual culture as well. We look at the earth as a magic, fragile object. And when it comes to global warming we face universal problems.

Todays most widespread and popular outlet of visual culture is the user interface. I’m not a cultural expert, but I do think it’s rather funny we see representations of the earth and galaxy returning in todays most popular interfaces. Those images are carefully selected and could as well been renderings of little fish or exotic plants.

Below are popular interface examples. New media is making the world a smaller place ;)

  1. The music-player in the Sony Playstation 3 shows moving images of the earth (video)
  2. The new background-set in Apple Mac OSX Leopard has Earth images
  3. And Earth is the Apple iPhone default screen
  4. Google Earth turned around 180 degrees and now looks up the sky

Do you know other examples? Please share.

Featured Interface design Usability

Is the traditional weblog lay-out still sufficient?

Eclectro Column Design sketch

There is an interesting discussion going on about what’s the most effective design for a blog homepage. Is it a single page design or a homepage with excerpts? Blogs are moving to excerpts and there are some good reasons for this.

For example let’s take the statistics of the Eclectro website. Those are interesting because last month we changed the lay-out from a single page design into a magazine-style design with only excerpts on the frontpage.

The Eclectro weblog – a Dutch weblog about electronic music – started in July last year, it is written by volunteers and reaches around 15.000 visitors a month generating over 40.000 pageviews a month.

Why re-design
The reason for the Eclectro re-design came from the content. The high speed of new articles made some other (valuable articles) drop of the frontpage too fast. There was no visual difference between short posts, sometimes only containing news and the special posts containing unique content or special reviews.

This could all be solved by creating a magazine-like template for the frontpage, and so we did. The downside, you have to make an extra click on the homepage before you can read the article. And maybe there would be some resistance by the readers.

The effect is very good, not only are we able to show more posts on the homepage we can also show more headlines and excerpts in the first screen (before the scroll). Dropping the single-page website had actually has no negative effect at all and we haven’t got complaints about the change of homepage style.

Here are some statistics * of the Eclectro homepage (with 9,401 views in december and 8,373 in november; total visitor number (15.000) for the entire site is roughly the same for these 2 months)

(* thanks to Inge):

9,401 Pageviews on the homepage
Previous: 8,373 (+12.28%)
– good: with a similar total amount of visitors, the number of homepage visitors is higher than last month, which means that more people see all our content.

00:01:49 Time on Page
Previous: 00:02:14 (-18.62% )
– the lower number makes sense, since the real messages are on another page.

29.48% Bounce Rate
Previous: 42.02% (-29.85%)
– excellent! apparently, people stick longer and are better teased to click further and not leave at once.

25.05% % Exit
Previous: 33.49% (-25.21%)
– again, excellent! less people leaving, more people clicking through.

Connection Speed Eclectro / Netherlands
The image shows the average used connection speed of visitors on the Eclectro website over the past half year. High speed connections are mainstream.

Screen Resolution Eclectro / Netherlands
The image shows the average used screen resolution used by visitors on the Eclectro website over the past half year. Average screen width is growing, although the height isn’t. Widescreen is very popular.

What does it mean?
The average viewer of the eclectro website has a pretty good connection and a reasonable screen width. A blog template was designed with scrolling in mind, one long page with the ten most recent posts on the homepage. Around the same time this single-page blog-design got popular we did see RSS become very popular as well. The design of a feed is often similar to a blog.

RSS is chronological the way the original blog design is. The magazine style is more based on the content itself. Making a selection in what is the best content. RSS is more valuable for the real heavy user of a website, is there something new I haven’t read? A magazine design is more useful for the average website visitor. The guy or girl who types the url a few times a week to see what’s new and more important what’s interesting enough to read.

Are RSS, widgets, Netvibes, iGoogle and e-mailsubscription accepted so broadly by heavy internet users that we can drop the single-page design? What do you think, and what do your statistics tell you (please share). Should all blogs with more than two posts a day seriously consider a design with only excerpts on the frontpage? Or is the single-page not dead at all?