Category: journalism

The Product Solution Stack Test

(tldr; A product strategy is only as strong as its weakest link.)

The Twitter dust-up this week ostensibly about digital having been a mistake for newspapers felt a bit like Groundhog Day (the movie.) New day, same argument, same result.

Steve Buttry and Mathew Ingram both posted eloquent rebuttals:

Buttry:  The newspaper industry’s colossal mistake was a defensive digital strategy

The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.

Ingram: Sticking With Print Would Not Have Helped Newspapers Avoid Death

Shafer’s piece assumes there was some magical Eden in which newspapers were unassailable, and that it would have been possible to remain there if not for the sin of pushing too hard into digital. But that simply isn’t the case.

Newspapers were never likely to dominate digital in the way they had print. Many of the causes are secular – the Internet is a supremely disruptive force that inherently flattens structures, eliminates middlemen and creates value at scale.

Newspapers on the other hand were middlemen built to extract local value from news and advertising. The worth of local journalism aside, the future of the print delivery business was always going to be problematic.

But blaming our travails entirely on those outside forces risks ignoring the mistakes we do own. And at the product and development level, we failed at some basic digital blocking and tackling. Those failures can be attributed to a lack of systems thinking in our strategies, and a lack of respect for just how difficult the ‘system’ of a legacy media company can be to navigate.

Developers have a concept of the ‘tech stack’ to describe the collection of software and subsystems required for a project. A typical example is ‘LAMP’ representing Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP in a common combination of operating system, web server, database and application/template software for a web site. Each component is dependent on the other and works together as a single system.

In product development, we also attempt to design coherent systems. But unlike a standard software stack, product solutions are emergent properties that reflect the desires, needs and constraints of a wide range of constituencies including humans, machines, cost and time.

  1. Reader Need (desirability)
  2. Business Need (viability)
  3. Visual Design (on brand and articulate)
  4. User Experience (function, usability)
  5. Development Effort (feasibility)
  6. Systems Integration (between disparate services and tools)
  7. Workflow (process for creating & publishing)
  8. Culture (shared assumptions that govern behavior)

Note that some of those layers (desirability, feasibility and viability) are typical human-centered design concepts. The others represent the people and processes necessary to actually bring a product to life including designers, developers and journalists.  To succeed, any product must ‘pass the test’ of at least minimally satisfying the requirements for each of the eight layers in that stack. And, because the stack crosses multiple organizational boundaries, creative and strategic conflicts will typically abound.

And more to the point, each layer in the stack is entirely capable of vetoing a product decision considered ‘solved’ in any or all of the layers above it. So, solving for seven is still a failing grade.

For instance, readers would undoubtedly prefer (level 1. Reader Need/desirability) a news site with no ads. But that would violate the need for revenues (level 2. Business Need/viability.)

And the further apart the levels the more complex the negotiations and solution will be.

Imagine a preferred design that dictated the use of triangular photos on the homepage. We could undoubtedly build the template and create a script to automatically crop images and avoid manual effort. But triangular photos are such a radical departure from accepted journalism norms the newsroom would likely reject the idea. (Possibly rightfully so.) So, all of the work to develop a product solution that worked from levels 3 to 7 would have been wasted, because we failed to solve for culture (level 8.)

So why have newspapers struggled with digital?

  1. Our guide star is often an internal business need, not an external customer need.
  2. We have failed to modernize many of our backend systems (starting with the CMS) causing many product strategies to fail at that level.
  3. In the name of expedience we launch features and products that do not meet the minimum requirements of all eight levels of the product stack.
  4. Our organizations are often siloed in a way that can return ‘false positives’ in the product stack test due to the inaccessibility of data.
  5. We have not explicitly enough discussed the complexity of the full product solution stack, so we have under-estimated the difficulty involved.
  6. We have failed to invest in the product and development resources that could help identify and resolve these issues.

When we solve those issues and are building products that ‘pass the test’ then we can go back to arguing about the ‘original sin‘ of digital journalism. Until then, we are still learning how to do digital media and are not ready to write the post mortem. Time is short, but the solutions are at hand if we take advantage.

 

Is the tide turning for UX in media?

Here is a word that does not come up often enough in journalism-tech conferences:

Empathy.

Empathy for readers, for advertisers and for colleagues in other departments. (That last one is a big deal if you want to get innovative things done at work.)

Empathy is simply the ability to understand the feelings and perceptions of another person. And it is a key ingredient to making products a person (who is not you) might hope to use and enjoy.

Yesterday at Poynter’s Mobile News Summit (#mobilenews15) in NYC the concept came up quite a bit. Not everyone used the exact word, but their meaning was quite clear. The day was putatively about mobile, but it focused extensively on putting readers and their needs first.

One of my favorite quotes of the day was directly on that topic.

Question: Is there a business case for investing in user experience? Answer from Jim Brady of Billy Penn: Yes. Frustrating users is not a strategy.

The readers we ignore and the news they want

Millennials like news. They just don’t like you – the legacy newsroom.

Don’t take it personally. By all accounts the under-40 crowd and many over forty (API millennial study here) read and value news. But they are not paying for it in larger numbers, and they are certainly not nearly as loyal to a small handful of digital news sources as their parents were to print.

We can argue that the Internet, and even more specifically mobile phones are the leading cause of this disruption. But that takes agency away from journalists and places it squarely on “technology.” And framing it as a tech problem drives us to try and solve it with technology.

“Throw another Snapchat on that mobile template. The young people will love it. Did you check how it looks on the Apple Watch and Google Glass?”

Which is odd, because we know why people read the news, or seek out other types of information: relevancy. Technology is just a convenience that lets us access that information 24/7 in almost any location or context.

Gary Kebbel at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is organizing a conference this Fall: Mobile Me & You and I have been thinking about news, smartphones and relevancy in preparation for a talk there.

So let’s propose a maybe not too controversial theory: While much of the journalism being produced by legacy news organizations is of value to younger readers, it does not entirely speak their language nor fully reflect their lives.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek test: open up your local printed newspaper – how many comics on the page were launched prior to 1960? FYI – that list includes B.C., Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, Blondie and Prince Valiant.

Comics aside, our failings are sins of omission as much as commission.

Many newspapers are still built to cover “community” as defined seemingly generations ago as rigid beat structures constrained by geography and by local government services. Advocating a change to that system is nothing new; numerous blog posts have covered the ground. Unfortunately, experimentation has come largely but not exclusively from digital news start-ups.

These days, digital-savvy readers live seamlessly between online and offline. Amazon.com is their local market and Netflix their local theater. The problem is neither Amazon or Netflix are “local” in a sense that is recognizable by local media. But, chances are about 30% of your hometown have shopped at Amazon in the past year. And Netflix has 40 million U.S. customers. There is a reason suburban malls are in trouble and Blockbuster went out of business.

Any local media out there covering new Netflix releases that aren’t House of Cards? HuffPo does.

Speaking of video: Good Mythical Morning. Never heard of them? The North Carolina pair appeared recently in an advertising campaign for Wendy’s and have 7.3 million subscribers on YouTube. They have received a smattering of local media coverage. A smattering. Keep in mind the top rated cable TV show last week received 4.9 million viewers.

Any local media out there covering YouTube shows? Tubefilter does.

One last category: games. Mobile games are estimated to be a $25 billion industry this year. Globally the movie industry is a $100 billion business, about $10 billion domestically.

Any local media out there covering mobile games? Vox does – Polygon.

The list goes on: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are all communities of interest comprised at least in part by your neighbors. Why do we spend so little time highlighting the conversations and content our local readers create on those platforms?

Uber, Yelp, and Pandora all have to some extent supplanted services that were previously hyper-local. But local people still continue to use them. So why don’t we cover them like we cover local taxis, business listings or radio stations?

By ceding “things that happen online” to Internet blogs and digital news start-ups we have washed our hands of a huge swath of human existence. And, we have done so for reasons that are as much due to structure and vision as resources.

This is not a “millennial” problem. It is a gap we face with any digital-friendly audience. It is not a “mobile” problem – though many of these users are mobile-first. It is not a “UX” problem as your user experience doesn’t much matter if readers find nothing of interest to read. The problem is the news industry has gone for years without needing to examine who its audience is or what they want. And our organizations have calcified to the point that it is difficult for us to even ask, much less answer the question.

Without a change in our approach and more attention paid to local lives lived online we will remain in a downward attention spiral. As readers migrate more and more to a hybrid digital/physical existence they will continue to leave us behind. Not because they don’t care about us, but because we don’t seem to care about them.

Listening about product management

Everyone has a list of books worth recommending to someone new to your profession. For instance, this collection I posted on Amazon last month.

But what about a recommended playlist? For product management.

Sounds unlikely, but I am thinking of podcasts not Top 40 hits. (Though You Can’t Always Get What You Want would make a great theme song.)

If you have even a passing familiarity with Public Radio or podcasts these are probably all familiar titles.


This American Life has been my favorite podcast for years. But how does it inform product development? Easy one. The show features fantastic storytelling and journalism, and after more than 500 episodes has plenty to say about projects and innovation. A few of my favorites on failure and innovations are below. Also note, the episodes require payment to download to your phone but can be streamed for free. Another interesting example for product managers.


RadioLab is in its 11th season, and should be required listening for product managers. The show focuses heavily on science, psychology, cognition and related topics. Go listen to Games right now – especially the second segment The Rules Can Set You Free.


Freakonomics is the radio version of the two books. And as the name implies it takes a non-traditional approach to economics. From the deadweight loss of gift giving to the negative externalities of home burgular alarms – it is a great show to help you think a bit differently.


99 Percent Invisible I saved for last because it is so good. The show, all about The Designed World, has been around for about 3 years and is just short of 90 episodes to date. I have only listened to the first 50 – 60 so far, so may be missing some good more recent examples. Topics hopscotch from toothbrush design, the implementation of sociotechnical principles in hospital operations to the use of smart technology to improve downtown parking. The episodes are short, so download a dozen and start listening.

 

 

 

When conspiracy theories strike, how do you respond?

Simple question: When misinformation is spreading on social media – can it be stopped?

Simple answer: No. As Churchill (edit: apocryphally) said,  “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” But, if you catch it early enough, you can potentially limit the damage.

Along with the tragedy of the Marathon bombing last week came the instant but well-worn conspiracy theories – none of which I am going to link to. Suffice to say, if you can dream up an improbable scenario someone has a webpage and a YouTube video dedicated to proving it is true.

One of particular interest here was pegged to a Boston Globe tweet sent at 3:53pm on April 15, an hour after the bombing:

Due to the vagaries of timezones and a lack of media literacy this was almost immediately seized upon by conspiracy theorists who thought it was sent hours before the actual bombing. (See below for details.) After intermittently responding on Twitter for a day or two, I compiled a timeline in Storify and began somewhat aggressively linking to it.

It is tough to quantify the success of those efforts. But, I did learn a few things along the way. These specifically apply to Twitter, but can extend to any platform.

First, I found five different types of users who were discussing the myth. Roughly categorized they were:

  1. Passers-by
  2. Questioners
  3. Trolls
  4. Accusers
  5. Conspiracists

Passers-by were people who simply got caught up in the conversation of friends and had little or no passion about the topic. Questioners had no particular reason to believe in a conspiracy, but were troubled by what others were saying about it. Trolls are just trolls – tough to say if some of them actually believed in anything aside from causing trouble. Accusers were the easiest to spot and respond to. Their tweets typically read  “@BostonGlobe why did you <fill in the blank>?” They tended to be skeptical of any answer, but may be reasoned with. Conspiracists were probably the smallest, but most vocal group. They are also the least likely to believe any evidence that contradicts their world view. They often responded with “Yes, but what about <link to conspiracy website> that was confirmed by eyewitnesses?”

In every case, the key is to respond honestly and directly and to stay on topic. Aside from some fairly amusing reactions (one person tried to report me to the FBI for spreading the myth) the effort seemed to be worth it. There are no fewer conspiracies floating around, but this particular one seems to have at least lost some traction. If there is a next time there are a few tips I would follow from day one:

  1. Before you respond, have something (in this case Storify) you can link to that tells your story.
  2. Track @ responses, but also check for keywords (in this case Globe, controlled explosion, drill)
  3. Prioritize responses to users who have large followings or numerous retweets
  4. Engage with individuals – but assume innocence. Some people are honestly confused and are just trying to make sense of events.
  5. Respond carefully, stay on topic and stick to the facts, avoid ANY extraneous detail.
  6. Humor does not work, sarcasm does not work. Use a few short words and a link.
  7. Everyone gets one back-and-forth but then disengage. This is fact-sharing not a debate. Stop while you are ahead.
  8. Don’t expect people to respond, correct their mistake, or even RT your link. The best you can hope for is they stop spreading the myth further.
  9. Look for allies already arguing with the conspiracists. They will be more likely to retweet the link and fight its spread for you.
  10. In the face of abusive responses say, “Thanks, sorry I could not be of more help.” or something similar. Then block those accounts as necessary.

You certainly can not “win” in these situations. There is no gatekeeper available to make a ruling on truth vs fiction. Some people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe. But, we can’t pretend that the spread of misinformation is not worth fighting. The more people that believe in a fiction, the fewer people will believe anything factual we do report.

Links are the currency of the Web. By staying out of these arguments we cede the field to the fantasists. By specifically addressing the truth (which many have this week) and then spreading the message on social media, we can fight fire with fire. We won’t convince everyone, but we can at least assure that a Twitter or Google search of the subject provides some facts, not just the fantasy.

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