It must be beautiful: on news product design

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

Product design workshop at India Internet Day.

How to design a great tech product for news?  The United States has seen some great and lovely new products for digital news, all in the past 5-6 years.  In India, on the other hand, digital design (at least for news sites) remains a race to the bottom.  A quick glance at the websites for the two big English dailies suggests one thing above all: no one seems to give a flying fig about designing a unique UX.

What a tragic oversight.  UX forms the core of any tech product; in many cases it is the answer to the fundamental question: “why are people using my product?”  A great UX can make the difference between a standout, successful product and another defunct web domain.  It’s not what you do, it’s also how you do it.

Recently, I went to a two-hour product design workshop at India Internet Day, where Amit Somani of MakeMyTrip, Sree Unnikrishnan of Google and Satish Mani of held forth on all these themes.  Here’s what I took away from it.

Design by committee – in this case, the 80 people in the room – is inevitably a disaster.  The first hour of the workshop was a mock product design brainstorming session.  Amit asked us to invent a product that could tell the time better than the devices we currently have.  Here’s how the cycle went:

Question 1: What do we want from a time product?  Desires: ability to quickly see multiple time zones at once, a tool that quantifies the value of time.

Question 2: What is wrong with what we currently have? Problems: watches can be lost, cell phones and watches require charge.

So we already had an unwieldy brief: design something that does a whole lot of calculations and syncs with multiple time zones, but at the same time avoids all the pitfalls and minor inconveniences of a device.

We then had pitches.  Someone suggested an earring/piece of jewelry that vibrated according to the time.  Another suggested a brain implant (which we couldn’t design). The winning design – which just goes to show the importance of presentation – was a plate with 24 dots on it, worn on a strap on the wrist.

Exactly. We voted in favor of a product that was essentially a more stone-age watch, and addressed none of the desires mentioned initially.  So much for product design by committee.

But THEN Amit, Sree and Satish took us through their product design manifesto.  At this point I was paying only inadequate attention because my phone and pen were both dying, but I remember a few key things:

BRING USERS INTO THE UX DESIGN PROCESS.  Seems intuitive, and yet, does not always happen.

IT MUST BE BEAUTIFUL.  I stress this point because this concept – that users deserve lovely products – doesn’t exist in India.  The digital design situation is a big game of chicken, wherein media orgs keep waiting for users to start paying more for products while users keep holding out and waiting for a product that is actually worth the money.  Is India a frustratingly price-sensitive market?  Absolutely. But on the other hand, genius design often means giving people something they have yet to realize they want. The notion that Indians either don’t notice or don’t care about beauty is utterly, horribly flawed. Everyone cares about beauty.  But I guess not everyone can afford it? Indian media cos have to stop treating their audience as a second-class audience that doesn’t deserve the best.  That is no way to build relationships, trust, or products that withstand the test of time.  Comparing the revenue earned by the New Yorker on iPad with the revenue earned by Mint on iPad is apples to oranges, not just because Indians have less disposable income but because the New Yorker app on iPad is a far more robust and vibrant product (and they designed it on a flying hunch, btw, not off an existing user base).  Mint is an interesting example because much of their initial traction when they launched was due to the lovely design and layout of their product, both on and offline, which was a novelty for the Indian market at the time.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but whatever we design for India has to have the following at its heart: 1) Android. 2) Beauty 3) Internationally Competitive UX 4) Cheaper, somehow?

(All very easy to say when my money is not on the line.  But still.  Point me to ONE beautiful tech news product that has come out of India and FAILED.  Exactly.  There aren’t any. An investment is not the same thing as an idea.  Indian users are sophisticated enough that we have seen/used well-designed, beautiful products.  We’re not going to magically start settling for less in the world of news.)

Everyone’s on FB, but no one’s on FB

A couple of studies worth presenting with some context today.

Case study 1: No one’s on FB

The first write-up, in Nieman Lab, discusses how the Delhi gang rape case provided new avenues for Indian journalists to engage with social media.  The article is a bit undercooked.  The piece begins with the troubling line: “This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere.”

I question this assertion, which seems entirely based on low Internet penetration numbers.  For starters, which social media are we talking about? The authors lump social media together, which in the Indian case is a mistake.  Twitter has made almost no impression in India outside of English-speaking, urban elites.  The same cannot be said for Facebook, which through clever apps like FB Photos and FB Zero has managed to divorce the FB experience from English and (to an extent) from smartphone possession.  So are the authors talking merely about the echo chamber of journalists, activists and (rare) politicians who are currently shouting at themselves in the Indian Twitter-verse?  (That’s what it sounds like, based on some of the quotes that appear below) Maybe, but then the writers have limited their study by default by not acknowledging the wider discourse that might exist in the world of Indian social media.  This is a country with a huge number of social networks, including audio and mobile networks.  Who knows what people are saying over on Goonj or CGnet Swara.  It is fine to limit your discussion to an aggregated, American-themed breed of social media, but then acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing.  Anyway, most Indian journos use social media to talk to other journalists, not to sources.  To what extent THESE conversations shape news coverage – and accelerate the spread of certain media myths – is a topic worth exploring in its own right.

But then we get into murkier waters still.  What, exactly, is the impact that social media has had elsewhere, to which these authors are drawing comparison?  In the Guardian, Leo Mirani presents Indian activism in Kashmir as a counter-example to Malcolm Gladwell’s frustration with social-powered revolutions.  Mirani also makes the excellent point that Facebook activism is essentially the 21st century version of “nailing your thesis to a church door,” ie FB activism is really just another manifestation of how social activism has functioned for centuries.  So, so true.  So how are we defining the word “impact”?  If someone wanted to make the claim that social media has not had the impact in India as elsewhere, and they could, then they should do a side-by-side comparison of social media in the wake of the Delhi gang rape and social media in the wake of, say, Steubenville.  These are both incredibly sensitive rape cases in which social media played a dramatic role in shaping discourse and news coverage, and both cases proved to be cultural touchstones.  If we want to talk about relative impact, we have to first decide what impact means, and how to measure it.  Merely saying that India has lower Internet penetration than the United States is no grounds for asserting lesser “impact.”

The basic claim that “This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India” actually feels generally correct to me.  Unfortunately, we’re not really seeing many numbers to support this assertion either.  Considering the hundreds of journalists – in multiple languages and media – who covered the Delhi gang rape case, the few interviewed in the Nieman piece can hardly be considered a cross-section.  Are we talking only about foreign journalists in Delhi and their English-speaking counterparts?  How much of the Indian media universe does an event/trend have to impact in order to be considered a “watershed”?  To be honest, I would have expected English-speaking journalists in Delhi to talk about the rape case on Twitter and FB.  They’ve been connecting with English-speaking audiences over social media for a while. But what about Hindi-language journalists in Jharkhand and Haryana? Did the rape case catalyze their coverage in any way? Did it change the nature of the conversation between journalists and sources, as measured in RT’s or the number of voices participating?  Did it change how media organizations’ coverage was perceived by audiences? Now these would be interesting metrics.  I just don’t find nearly enough hard support in this article to convince me that the Delhi gang rape case marked a shift or a change in the relationship between journalists and social media in India.

Finally, the authors conclude that “[Social media] offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.”  So in other words, exactly the same outcome as in the United States.  Again, not entirely sure what unique light this observation sheds on the situation in India.

Case Study 2: Lots of people are on FB

By contrast, here’s an article that appeared on the front page of the Hindu a few days ago: “Facebook users could swing the results in 160 Lok Sabha constituencies.”  For those who want to parse the original study on which the article is based, it’s available here.  (Honestly – if you have ANY interest in Indian data journalism/elections/etc, read this study in its entirety.  It’s fascinating.  The authors of the vaporous Nieman report cited above, for example, might be interested to know that a third of Indian FB users live in towns with populations >500,000.)  There are places, of course, where this methodology is highly flawed, but the authors look at the analytics-based peer-to-peer online targeting used to great effect by Obama in 2012 and ask, “Could this happen in India?” And they conclude that it could, if you look at sheer number of FB users.  (Of course, the authors themselves admit that “We have used the number of Facebook users as an indication of the clout of social media instead of analyzing their behaviour to see if they are really active and showing signs of wanting to make an impact.”)  In other words, Indian social media users could be so apathetic that they’re never going to vote, or they could be so civic-minded that they already vote, in which case targeting them might or might not make any difference.  We have no idea how receptive these users are to political messaging, nor through what channels.  But considering the success that brand messages have had with young Indian audiences on FB, one never knows.


Both of these assertions can be true, and taken together they illustrate the unique situation of social media in India.  Despite its somewhat shaky support, the Nieman article is right in that the absolute penetration of Facebook in India remains low.  BUT the IAMAI study is right too, in pointing out that these users already possess enough clout to potentially have a significant impact on things like the political process.  Of course, there is a dramatic gap – as we’ve observed universally – between being able to affect politics (who gets elected) and being able to affect policy-making (what rules politicians make.)  Empowerment is about more than getting Facebook spammed by Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi come election time.

But essentially, journalists and politicians face the same challenge – figuring out how to use social media (an imperfect and not completely widespread tool) to inform opinion-makers and recruit new audiences, even while understanding how narrow the spread of these tools remains.

The ideal integrated newsroom isn’t a newsroom…

…it’s a network.

All the buzz I hear from editors in India is how to “integrate” their newsrooms to be digital-forward and even digital-first. Here are the unfortunate facts that the Indian Readership Survey doesn’t always convey: print revenues are declining as a per cent of total revenues. There are many ways for these ratios to shift, but paper is no longer king.  The percentage of ad revenue that comes from print went from 51% to 46%  over the past five years.  In the US, it took ten years for that shift to take place.  Meanwhile, mobile is eating our lunch, and the Internet has taken a big chunk out of our highly profitable classified sections.  So suddenly everyone is a lot more serious about digital than they were last year or even the year before.

Here’s my take on how to do an integrated newsroom right:

-Borrow a page from the startup manual.  Lean, responsive teams.  How many people do you really need to churn out good, multi-platform content? Not the 100 who make up a national staff.  This is inefficient, and it’s newsroom bloat.  Fewer jobs for traditional “journalists” and more jobs for coders, designers, statisticians, etc.  Each team has a project manager, a senior editor/content head (spectacular writer and editor), an intrepid reporter or two (gets to the scene, files the content), a UX guy who can hack a great data viz using whatever code he finds off GitHub, a social media person

-“Re-envision” content streams as products.  That means that economics coverage, finance coverage, business coverage, auto coverage – each of these is its own product, and falls under a product manager.  (We can invent some other title if we really object to the crass commercialization of that precious entity we refer to as the news.)   That person is responsible for overseeing coverage, chasing down partnerships, and figuring out inventive and possibly revenue-generating new things for the team to do.

-A spectacular, cutting-edge content management system that files all your inputs into a secure cloud.

Souped-up mobile phones with Camera+, 3.5 mm lav mics, sound recorder apps installed that can file every conceivable type of content from the field.

-Photographers, statisticians, get their own bureaus and get pulled into projects ad-hoc.

Here’s how the workflow goes:

-Senior editor assigns a story, flags product manager.  If it’s a big story, he might request a photog.  If it’s a numbers story, he might ask for a special stat guy.  Reporter goes out into the field, covers the event, captures all the required footage, files directly into the cloud as the news happens.  Senior editor stands by, reviews inputs as they come in, assigns things to various platforms (this goes to mobile, this can become a slide show, etc – this is where the product manager can also kick in ideas).  Editor tweaks copy as needed for paper/long-form online text.  Meanwhile the social media guy Tweets/FB-s/Pins/whatever else also as the news happens.  The social media guy might also RT other people who are in his network who are commenting on the same news event.

That’s the basic format for breaking news/beat teams.  Special projects can be its own team.

I think the scariest thing for traditional journalists is there are very few actual journalists on these teams, at least in the conventional sense.

The other big snarl in newsrooms is that the digital guys usually report to a digital business head, while the edit guys report to a traditional editor-in-chief.  As the wall between digital and edit comes entirely down, we will have to somehow mesh these roles.  Perhaps senior management can be its own top team, with the digital business head and editor-in-chief serving in the two top roles.  Business head looks at partnerships/revenue max, while the editor-in-chief looks at storytelling and content production.  Of course, there has to be a top boss to take calls and break a tie. I think the challenge will be getting journalists to accept business people as their partners, when for so long all they’ve felt for them is a gentle disdain.

And there you have it.  The integrated newsroom: a network of tightly linked, highly responsive teams, hierarchy largely removed, roles very clearly defined.

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