I managed to make it to the Digital Editors Network meet-up on Thursday – #visualDEN if you search for it on Twitter – and came away with head and notebook stuffed full of ideas.
The theme, as the hashtag suggests, was around the visualisation of stories, and talks touched covered the presentation of information through graphs, graphics and multimedia, among other things.
But the talk that metaphorically smacked me right between the eyes came from Amy Webb, because she made me realise I have to stop thinking about The Audience.
I say it a lot – one of my hobby horses is the need to be ‘audience first’ – and we know a lot about The Audience because our analytics keep us informed.
I know what time they start waking up and reaching for their phones or tablets to scan the morning’s news agenda; I know when they get that pre-lunch attention dip and start surreptitiously pointing the browser on their work desktop at interestingness on the internet; I know when they have their lunchbreak and head out armed with their mobile phone, and I know when they want to find out about their commute home.
Most of all, I know The Audience likes to slob out at home, tablet or phone in hand, and watch TV while taking part in a running commentary with millions of others online.
I know this because we monitor The Audience and try to meet its baby bird demands, as it gapes expectantly for content and entertainment.
However, yesterday’s DEN made me realise, to paraphrase Ygritte: “You know nothing, Alison Gow”.
I have to stop thinking about The Audience and start thinking about The Person. There’s a tendency to adopt a hive-mind approach to your users when you use analytics to learn about them – we make assumptions because we can see the bigger picture, and this approach is fine and correct because the data backs our assumptions up, but the smaller picture offers a rewarding and rich canvas of information too.
So I know that between, say 6am and 9am, The Audience is waking up and reaching for a device, but I really need to imagine what The Person is doing at that time.
They might be using that tablet or phone in bed, or while blearily boiling the kettle, or using the bathroom.
After 8am they might be on their commute – either in a car, so that’s the end of our involvement at that time, or on public transport, in which case they are still with us.
What The Person probably wants at that time of the morning are snippets that fit around their busy routine; pieces of content that are quick and simple to consume and which deliver their information without requiring participation. Passive consumption of information: It’s probably why the Prozac lull of BBC Breakfast is so attractive compared to the technicolour of ITV.
Does that mean a breaking news blog is ultimately, a frustrating use for The Person, as it involves a level of commitment to scrolling and finding things out?
Putting myself in The Person’s shoes, I guess the answer has to be: Yes, sometimes; even with pinned summaries, it makes me work harder than I want, to find things out.
However, breaking news live blogs are among the most popular things we do – so is the theory sound but the platform and delivery improvable? Or does it depend on the type of rolling news event being covered?
The answer may well be to ask users on one of our live blogs if it works for them but it’s never occurred to me to do so,because The Audience data tells me breaking news live blogs are a hit and, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if, by tinkering, you could take something that wasn’t broken, and make it amazing?
It’s the same with the lunchtime traffic spike – factor in what people have to do in their lunch hours (or 30 minutes), from heading out to find food/a cashpoint/a service suppliers etc etc to doing actual exercise, and you realise this is a very time-poor Audience indeed.
Amy Webb, presenting at DEN, warned against consumer-centric design because it did not take account of people’s lives as individuals, and said, according to my shorthand, anyway: “Modern journalism is incompatible with devices so it is important to design for people, not their devices”.
So the thing I’m musing on post-DEN is this: When you are Audience-guided is there a danger you can become Person-blinded?