A superior user experience

Those of us who struggle every day trying to figure out this new media thing and worrying about economic models for journalism get distracted by many ideas and lamentations.

Thanks, then, to Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president for product management at Google, for this long, thought-provoking, and perceptive piece that helps to refocus on what we should be about: a superior user experience.

. . . As written communication has evolved from long letter to short text message, news has largely shifted from thoughtful to spontaneous. The old-fashioned static news article is now just a starting point, inciting back-and-forth debate that often results in a more balanced and detailed assessment. And the old-fashioned business model of bundled news, where the classifieds basically subsidized a lot of the high-quality reporting on the front page, has been thoroughly disrupted.

This is a problem, but since online journalism is still in its relative infancy it’s one that can be solved (we’re technology optimists, remember?). The experience of consuming news on the web today fails to take full advantage of the power of technology. It doesn’t understand what users want in order to give them what they need. When I go to a site like the New York Times or the San Jose Mercury, it should know what I am interested in and what has changed since my last visit. If I read the story on the US stimulus package only six hours ago, then just show me the updates the reporter has filed since then (and the most interesting responses from readers, bloggers, or other sources). If Thomas Friedman has filed a column since I last checked, tell me that on the front page. Beyond that, present to me a front page rich with interesting content selected by smart editors, customized based on my reading habits (tracked with my permission). Browsing a newspaper is rewarding and serendipitous, and doing it online should be even better. This will not by itself solve the newspapers’ business problems, but our heritage suggests that creating a superior user experience is the best place to start.

What do readers want? My guess is that it’s three things:

  • news and information
  • conversation
  • opportunity

Opportunity for what?

We’ll try to explore that in future blogs.
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And thanks to Jack Shafer, writing another excellent piece in Slate on business models for journalism (Not all information wants to be free), for pointing to the Rosenberg article.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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