Digitally native news
Our product strategy for ITV News
was simple, bold and probably as obvious in hindsight as any good idea should be. We set out to create a digitally native news service, something made for the web and mobile that left behind the Guttenberg-era baggage of ‘pages’, ‘articles’ and ‘editions’ that most news websites haven’t been able to shake off, as well as reworking some proto-web typologies like ‘navigation’, ‘liveblogging’ and ‘galleries’.
We wanted to make a news service that answered the question: “What would news be like if we had networked digital media (and digital cameras and phones and laptops) but there had never been newspapers or broadcast TV news programmes?”.
Live-stream, video-based, multiple sources, filtered by story
We saw a big part of the answer in the coverage of the Arab Spring on aljazeera.com and by the Egyptian peoples’ own stories on Youtube and Twitter: this was what news online should be like. When we first began talking to Michael Jermey (Head of News and Sport) and Julian March (Head of Online News) at ITV in Spring 2011 we quickly hit on a simple design strategy that played into ITV News’ strengths: lead on a stream of real time content that includes lots of short-form video playing directly in the stream - so that whenever I come back I know there’ll be something new. But the stream would have some particular characteristics: we’d push lots of big photographs through and tell stories with words and pictures, learning a lesson from Picture Post and Life; we’d have editors curate the stream using multiple sources and content types, aggregating the best of the web and not just ITV/ITN-generated material; and we would also filter the stream to make it possible to follow individual stories. This last was the big idea and - certainly in this context - an original one.
Keep it simple
We also had a design mantra, ‘keep it simple’. We hope we’ve stuck to it. We hate the visual and conceptual complexity of many news websites and we know users do too because we’ve found it so in testing. Our quest for simplicity was sharpened by focusing on two basic and related use cases: “As a user, I want to know what the world’s talking about today”, and: “As a user, I want to follow the big stories through the day across devices wherever I am”. This was why filtering was so important: “just show me updates on Phonehacking...Syria...Soapstar murder...Cup Final - whichever stories I’m interested in.
We ignored two other use cases served by most news sites, the ones that result in multiple layers of navigation, being: “As a user, I want to find the latest news about a topic that’s a very particular and unique interest of my own”; and, “As an editor I’ve got lots and lots of stories that I want you to discover, but they’re all getting in each other’s way.”
This is why principle navigation is by story, not topic.
Transforming the newsroom
The bare bones of this product strategy were first formulated in a successful pitch in February. Kick off day was in May 2011 at the London Television Center on the South Bank with 50 national and regional news editors. Broad participation was a key to the project’s success throughout, but this was only a small part of a 300-strong award winning broadcast news team dedicated to producing polished video packages three times a day at lunchtime, evening and News at Ten. Raw news delivered as it happened across 24 hours in copy, tweets, weblinks and pictures - not just video - would be a massive culture shock. There was nervousness, especially about time and resources, offset by enthusiasm for change and a leadership determined to exploit the potential of real-time news delivered across multiple devices. We also had a strong conviction that opening up the news gathering process - rather than adding new work - would give us the content we needed for the stream.
Built with the freedom of no print or digital legacy
It’s possible that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve such a simple and radical outcome if working with a news organisation with an underlying culture of print: we would most likely have trod on too many toes, threatened the privilege of old skills, been seen to be tearing down a valuable legacy. At almost every step of the way ITV encouraged us to be bold. After all, there was no legacy online service of significance and we were released from many commercial constraints. In fact when we had the inevitable moments of self-doubt they pushed us forwards. Towards the end of the concept phase we presented a homepage that led on conventional articles and Robin Pembrooke, managing director of online and on demand, who was always a steadfast supporter of the stream-first approach, upbraided us for losing our nerve.
The power of rapid prototyping
Our next task was to prove the concept in action: to lead on a live stream of all the news, filter the stream by story and head up each story stream with a catch-up article or analysis. We needed answers to three urgent questions: could a live stream of all the news - not just a big unfolding event - be turned into a desirable product? What kind of effort would be involved in producing it? And was this a feasible option for the ITN and regional ITV news teams?
We built the first of three prototypes in node.js and joined Jason Mills, the ITN online news editor, and his team in the newsroom. We learnt that curating the stream was a job for at least three editors/producers; that it had the potential to be a great editorial product so long as the editor had a feel for storytelling, which meant knowing what to leave out as well as what to put in; that a fast and simple admin tool with very rapid throughput would be a vital component of the product (our prototype editor was woefully inadequate). We also found out that we would be able use the by-products of the journalistic process to give us sufficient content. In fact, a second round of tests on the national day of action against public service cuts demonstrated that not only would we have enough content from ITN, but the sum of the ITV regions was a fantastic news gathering resource for national stories with a local dimension.
Customer testing drives editorial and design
We continued testing with a larger group and discarded marginal ideas and focused on what people really liked. We wanted to get to launch with a minimum viable product and then continue to build and adapt the service with the benefit of mass audience feedback.
A third throwaway prototype with a much slicker admin tool was introduced in September and this was used by national and regional news teams to practice delivering real time news two days a week, gradually building up to four or five. Julian March made weekly tours of the regions, encouraging and guiding the news teams, giving feedback from the test group and sharing experience. By January, when we switched to an Alpha version of the production site (built by Made by Many in Ruby on Rails), most of the newsrooms were producing streams of high quality content and - excitingly - beating Sky and BBC news online to breaking stories.
We had debates along the way. What was the life cycle of a story in the stream? (Variable, but not normally greater than 24 hours). Could a story filter name change to fit the latest news (Yes). What was the optimum number of filters (between 9 and 12). Will users object to advertising in the stream? (most of our test group didn’t). Are horizontal galleries better than vertical picture stories (No, people are happier scrolling). Should comments be included in the first release? (No, but we have some interesting plans) and, vitally, is a mobile optimised version necessary for first release (resounding Yes!).
This is a minimum viable product, what’s next?
We've launched after just six two-week iterations of build. There will be further releases of the product as we watch how it grows and is received. Lean product development requires focus on value and discarding anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for launch. Robin and Julian understood very clearly the value of agile, integrated development and what that involves on both sides: give and take on functionality and going for a minimum viable product that doesn’t deliver everything now; trust that not everything has to be designed or signed off upfront, accepting responsibility and clear roles in delivery, and, above all, working together as a team. We were incredibly fortunate to have an ITV product manager, Jason Mercer, working with our team in our studio. Likewise, we were accepted into the newsroom by Jason Mills and ITV News Editor Deborah Turness.
This is just the start of a project, building a platform for next generation news at ITV. Next steps? Local participation is a very interesting prospect, so is finer-grained filtering by different facets (including location, topics, popularity, people) and of course, comments and sentiment tracking and connected TV. What we know is that its already had an impact on the news team by turning it into a 24 hour news operation that’s no longer constrained by TV. Irrespective of the running order set by broadcast, if a reporter has a story, now he or she has an outlet.
This isn’t the definitive account of the story either. There’s a fascinating technology story to be told by Stuart Eccles; James Higgs will lift the lid on an editorial admin tool that can turn news around in seconds; Cath Richardson will be blogging about the way customer testing influenced our decisions and changed our audience focus; and Robin Pembrooke will be blogging tomorrow about the experience from ITV’s point of view.
We’d really appreciate any comments or opinions on the service. It’s very different, we won’t have got it all right, but we’re confident that a big chunk of the ITV News audience - and beyond - will really get it.
With huge thanks to all at Made by Many, ITV and ITN involved in the concept, design, development and delivery of the project