What is you start a news website from scratch and try to leverage technology the furthest we can. This is the question that got us started with EN.nl. We build a completely autonomous news website. A news service that learned readers behavior and adapted to the individual reader.
The year long journey brought learned us a lot about find a balance between editor’s and automation. The rise of personalisation. What people say they want and what they actually click. And how to build a strong technical news infrastructure that’s versatile and flexible. As a product owner I was responsible for the innovation project. The EN.nl project was a project of de Volkskrant Innovation department. The technology, research and learnings from EN.nl benefitted multiple sites and projects within de Volkskrant, resulting in an optimzed workflow and readers behavior.
It’s been a while since I have posted something on wilbertbaan.nl. The next weeks I’ll try to pick it up again and write about why the experimental news system EN.nl stalled and where it stalled, and what I learned from it. And I will write about some new private projects I’ve been working on in the last months.
Ideas In a very interesting piece called World Building web artist Jonathan Harris is comparing online experiences with fast food culture. I can very much relate to what he writes and reading his essay-like story is definitely worth some your time.
City ideas have to do with a particular moment in time, a scene, a movement, other peopleâ€™s work, what critics say, or whatâ€™s happening in the zeitgeist. City ideas tend to be slick, sexy, smart, and savvy, like the people who live in cities. City ideas are often incremental improvementsâ€”small steps forward, usually in response to what your neighbor is doing or what you just read in the paper. City ideas, like cities, are fashionable. But fashions change quickly, so city ideas live and die on short cycles.
The opposite of city ideas are â€œnatural ideasâ€, which account for the big leaps forward and often appear to come from nowhere. These ideas come from nature, solitude, and meditation. Theyâ€™re less concerned with how the world is, and more with how the world could and should be.
The development of and on the web is mostly iterative. We make small steps fast, and as a result our creative focus narrows, making bigger steps less likely. It’s also happening in our communication. Open communication like Twitter lowers the barriers to talk to someone, not only are the costs near zero, the social barrier is also very low. I can ask you something. And even easier, I can directly respond to something you share.
Open source software and the thrive to continuous communication with customers makes product development public and iterative. As a results it connects better to demands and minimizes risks.
I don’t judge this culture. I don’t think you can. It’s the effect of a time. I don’t think you can judge it right or wrong, it’s a fact, something that’s happening right here, right now.
Personally I like the iterative structure the web is in. I also feel it’s blocking me from taking bigger steps. It’s difficult to take some distance from something that’s always moving.
If you do take some distance and ask yourself how will this be in five or ten years you will get a pretty clear focus and you will be able to think in leaps instead of iterative steps.
For me, my best and personal most successful and satisfying projects are those where I took some distance and time to research.
The last year has seen social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn updating the design of the homepage to turn it more into a notification page: the homepage as a place where you can see what your friends are doing. Your virtual center of the network.
These updates let you know what your friends are up to, but they also let you know what your friends like or share. The social networks often work as recommendation networks as well.
New technology, new business
Google added relevancy and order to hyperlinks and is very useful for the active searcher: someone who’s looking for something. Social networks add relevancy to hyperlinks you’re not searching for. The networks provide you with new information and new articles recommended by virtual friends.
Both are in a business that was traditionally the business of a news provider. Google gives you insight and background information. Social Networks keep you up-to-date and recommend information.
Does this design shift also affect the future design of news websites?
The average news website probably publishes around a hundred articles every 24 hours. We can’t and don’t want to read all the articles a news website publishes. We need filtering mechanisms.
News websites add hierarchy to the news by presenting the most important things first. But this is a mass hierarchy. It’s not personal. The sorting is based on what the news website thinks will interest most people. And this works very well for the most important news.
The news website is a large pile of stories. Is this still in the best interest for a reader? His or her most valuable asset is time. Sure there is some news you need to know about, but you get to know about the important facts through your social networks as well.
And if you know the facts you can learn more by hitting the search button. The news website is still a database with a single entry, the frontpage. This makes it vulnerable in a distributed environment.
The future of information presentation (at least for the long tail of information) will probably be user-centered. Mobile devices are extremely user-centered. Successful access points like interfaces and devices provide readers with the most relevant information.
Time is our most valuable asset and the reduction of noise is a serious proposition for any new service. News itself is relevant, there is no question about this, but how do you deliver your content in a distributed environment?
Type of environments
There are different environments.
1. Get your content on other platforms through syndication or API’s. The problem is monetization, although you could distribute the news and link back to your website with hyperlinks in the text that link to more in-depth coverage.
2. Your content on your platform with a personalized presentation based on your own network or an external (social) network.
3. The current form of presentation where your content is on your platform presented in your hierarchy.
What can you do as a news website to be more relevant? Should news websites learn from the design of social networks and move to a more user centered approach? The New York Times is already doing this with Times People and with EN.nl (the project I work on) we created a personal selection based on your reading habbits.
What design elements that originated in social networks do you think could very well be applied to the basics or every major news homepage? Or what are the arguments not to implement this kind of functionality?
– Share articles with your friends
– See on what articles your friends commented
– See what your friends are reading
– See what news is happening close to your friends
– See news topics your friends subscribed to
– Discuss an article only with your friends
The order of the frontpage is created by how the site is used by its readers and the impact of the news given by the press agency. It’s a dynamic presentation created out of a mix of variables from discussion, to pageviews, to urgency, to incoming links and a few more.
The frontpage also shows you two lists and a picture that are personal to you. In the right column it shows you a short list containing articles that might interest you. You see a second list with articles that are read in your network and you see a third picture that is a photograph from the news that might interest you.
The other thing we created are related articles based on the distance between tags, using a tag-relation table. This distance can create clusters of information that might be interesting in the future to create groups, but it also generates related articles in a much more refined way. Two articles don’t need tags in common to be related to each other.
Where is this heading
For the last weeks we have been using the partly personalized frontpage and we are noticing that is works pretty good. You don’t miss the big news, but you do get a more personalized presentation and you see what your friends are reading. It works this well that it might deserve a more prominent presentation on the frontpage.
For example I don’t read much about soccer and instead of a soccer picture at the bottom of the page (which a colleague had) I did see a picture of a Dutch politician at that moment more relevant to me.
Personalization is good, but of equal importance is the social aspect. News is always about sharing and talking about it with your friends and colleagues. At this moment we have created so much different parameters that it gives us more options to sort information than we could have ever expected.
How to build a community?
So how should we build a community or create interaction with your friends or like minded?
Facebook is switching its homepage to a notification page. It shows you what your friends are doing (screenshot). The most exciting pages of social web services are the pages that show you what is going on in your network. This makes the service less a service you go to, but more a circle around you. Flickr does this with recent uploads from your friends, LinkedIn with your contacts switching jobs all the time, and Twitter is all about it.
Survival of the fittest
Why shouldn’t a news website be user centered? I was kind of sceptic about this idea at first. Since we claim news isn’t something that is personal. But it is. A newspaper is becoming more and more something that is personal. With less time to read we scan the headlines and only pick the articles we like. First you read the things that interested you. If you have time left you start to read articles that are second choice. This isn’t something new, only with less time to spend on the medium we stopped reading our second choices.
Make it small
The most interesting social websites that create a social experience are user centered. Can this be done with news as well? And more important does it add extra value to the news? Why would someone use a certain news website, when news is omnipresent? What can you add to something that has ‘no value’ based on content and originality? Besides usability, the only thing you can add is choice. What is the focus of a news website? Will it report left news more prominent? Is it more about gossip? Will it present news as it evolves and before the facts are all clear or will it wait until the guessing is over?
Here are just some thoughts about how a more social and personal experience could be designed. These are small steps towards a user-centered news website.
1. To create the feeling you are in a network you need a feed with updates of your network. What are the people you know doing on this website. This could be updates from your friends (design screenshot) about what articles they favorite, read, commented on or edited.
3. Create the website only around you and your friends. For example it could be possible to look at the website and only see the comments your friends made on articles. You could choose to discuss the news only with your friends (making it more personal) or to switch your friends off and discuss it with the world.
4. Use your reading behavior to help you find other interesting things. EN could use your profile to aggregate all different kind of sites and recommend articles. For example if you are reading a lot about the stock market. EN could go to a service like Technorati get the blogs that write about topics you like and use the Technorati relevancy to sort and recommend you blogs or further readings.
5. Use article meta information to connect to other websites and automatically enrich articles on EN with this information. For example find pictures about a news event made by people witnessing it.
6. These are all options easy to create in EN from a technical point of view. Help me out. What is it you think that is interesting and makes online news reading a more social experience?
Peers are important for development. It’s their reflection that makes us act, (re-)think and it are the peers around us that make us move forward faster.
This blog is a peer. I write thoughts and ideas. By reading comments, e-mail, incoming links and sometimes talking to people about certain posts I look at it differently and it changes or develops my view. It helps me go further.
The peer for my blog (and my thoughts) is the reach it has. Not so much in the number, but the knowledge and expertise of the people reading it and expressing it.
Get in contact
Meeting your peers every day is what I miss most about Art School. The most important thing was just being there. Talking to people and more important being open about your ideas and thoughts. Sharing your thoughts about great work made by others. If you are working it can be very difficult to find peers around you in the workplace.
Peers challenge you to go further, peers challenge you to seek your limits. For example athletes. If you would be the only guy or girl running in the world. You would try to break your personal record. But you would probably perform better if a second runner came around and broke your personal record.
The guys on Wikipedia are editing the stories because they like the fact that they know it better. They have skills and using those skills is what makes them shift upwards in the network of peers.
Engage as a news consumer
What’s the peer system for the news reader? And does it exist? Or can it be created? The peers for a journalist are clear. Someone will always write better articles or the article you would like to have written. I see co-production and an open process (involve readers in your research) as the only way journalism can work under the time pressure created by new media. And this creates enormous opportunities for journalists. Who seem to be pretty pessimistic about the future, I don’t see why.
Making news is (or will be partly) a peer review process. It has always been. Someone writes about a subject and the next day all media will write about it.
Peers vs. Sharing
Is the news consumer a peer? For me important since I’m looking for new directions and experiments on EN.nl. If we see peers as producers most of the news readers will not be producers. They have certain knowledge and skills that are valuable at some point. But this will only be 1% of the readers or less. And this is good. With 1% of your readers being part-time active a website of reasonable size will have more editors than any other news website.
Engage the other 99%
How can you engage the other 99%. The other part of a social network who are instead of peers (talking about what you have made) more into sharing (talking about what you have seen).
I myself share a lot through e-mail, websites like Delicious, this blog and Google Reader. But if I look at what I share there is almost never a news story. I share stories from newspapers, but almost never the news.
The fun thing is that when you are talking to someone you don’t know that well at the coffee machine, your conversation is often about the news.
What is the social umfeld of a newsarticle? Are it the comments? And how should these comments be structured? Within an anonymous group ‘all the readers’ or divided into smaller groups with the people you know, like or admire. Should news be structured into topics to create a social atmosphere?
I would like to involve people online the same way as they engage offline, talking about the news. And I have some ideas and experience on the subject.
What is it you think that truly engages the other 99%?
An update on EN.nl will follow, lots of new things have happened, creating endless new possibilities
The coming weeks we will be further updating the EN.nl news website. The last weeks we have added interesting things on the database level and back-end of the system. Now it is time to bring some of those ideas to the front-end.
One of the things we have done is making tags more important. After using and testing with it we noticed the combined tagging methods we use give a very interesting and relevant database with tags. The tags have more value and semantic relations than I thought they would have. EN.nl has over 35.000 articles in its database with over a 100.000 tags, 10.000 of those tags are unique.
What we have added is a system that tracks the tags of the articles you read. With this information a metadata profile is created. New articles that enter the site will be matched to your ‘profile’ and if there is a match this will be a recommended article. There is also a tag relation mechanism to create a more semantic relation.
We will do the same for your friends, since news is part of a social experience. We are adding groups as well. If you have online friends using the website, you and your group of friends creates a semantic profile as well. New articles will be recommended that fit to your group of friends.
What about this tag based profile based on what your read? The profile could be private or hidden. It could also be open or even exportable. For example EN.nl could connect to web services and get the highest rated and most recent blog posts about subjects you like and recommend these to you. Or you could connect the information to other profiles to create a more rich or enhanced experience on other platforms as well.
Would you like to take this profile? And can you think of a service that could serve you better when it has a collection of news themes and subjects you like?