User research towards a new Newsroom

A screenshot of the old Newsroom page.
How the old Newsroom looked

Hi, my name is Lorna. In June 2018, I was asked to lead on the redesign of the newsroom for Brighton & Hove City Council’s new website. The redesign would form part of the work the Communications team is doing to update our style for a more modern approach to news, such as writing for the web and social media.

The new website

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that our new website has been live for a while. We’re rolling it out slowly, as we redesign the content with each council team and move sections over from the old site.

As such, we already had an information architecture and pattern library for most of the website content. However, news content works differently to static or transaction-focused content as it entails different goals (for both residents and the council). News content needs to engage and entertain rather than just inform people, and can have a shorter shelf-life.  So, we needed to do some thorough user research to uncover the users’ needs and behaviours before attempting to redesign the newsroom.

Planning the research

We decided that our primary target users were local residents and the communications officers who write our news articles and post them online.

I put together a research plan that included:

Some images of heatmaps of the Newsroom.
One source of data I used was heatmaps that show where people click and scroll when reading stories
  • a pop-up survey of readers of council news stories
  • interviews with local residents
  • comparative analysis of other council websites and news sites
  • analysis of visitor traffic to the existing newsroom
  • analysis of social media engagement
  • analysis of heatmaps of visitor behaviour on the existing newsroom
  • interviews with news authors

Addressing limitations and avoiding bias in research

A photograph of the inside of the Bartholomew House Customer Service Centre.
I interviewed 31 residents in different council customer service centres and libraries

As with all research, it was important to be aware of the limitations and the potential biases that were difficult to avoid using these methods. For example, the interviews were held with people I approached in libraries and customer service centres, so there were some groups of people that I was more likely to speak to than others. Also, because the survey was aimed at people visiting the news pages, the responses were from people already engaged with the news pages.

However, the findings of the survey and interviews were interesting and seemed to be supported by the available online data.

Challenges

As with all projects, this one had its challenges! For example, we had initially included businesses as another target audience. However, I found it was very time consuming to engage with businesses and we want to make sure we have the time to properly work with them. So, we put a hold on that angle of the project for the time-being, but we will definitely talk to businesses again in the future.

While we did end up with a reasonable number of responses to the online survey on our news stories, this also took quite some time before there were sufficient responses for us to draw conclusions from it. We also had to be careful that we weren’t receiving multiple responses from the same user. Although the survey software seemed designed to prevent multiple responses, I certainly found some responses that seemed suspiciously similar!

One other challenge was that respondents were using the survey as a way to communicate with the council, instead of using our customer services contact forms. As we didn’t insist on respondents leaving an email address, we often had no way of getting back to them about an issue they had raised. We also had to be judicious about whether/how the data was used to inform the newsroom design.

Key findings and their implications for the design

Some of the findings that influenced the strategic decisions we made included:

An example of a sketched design and the resulting design pattern that is used on the new Newsroom.
I sketched different designs and worked with our designer to create solutions that fit within the new website design guidelines

Finding: People don’t tend to visit the council website to “browse” for general news. They are very often visiting to find information about a specific story they have heard about elsewhere.

Solution: Prioritise search functionality and categorise news stories to help visitors find the information they have come for.

Finding: Stories about major building developments and related consultations are far more popular than any other topic.

Solution: Clearly link to the Major Developments section of the website, and review how that content is presented when it is moved to the new website.

Finding: Word-of-mouth is a very important source of local news (including social media). However, people often repeated misinformation or had misinterpreted information.

Solution: Use callouts or pull quotes to flag the most important pieces of information so that people get the correct facts if they don’t read the whole story and remember the things that are most important.

Finding: Although many residents are on social media and they are not surprised that the council has social media accounts, it hadn’t occurred to them to follow the council. The same was true for our email newsletters. Some respondents said they would follow us or subscribe (if it looked interesting) but that they hadn’t thought about it.

Solution: Make links to subscribe to our email newsletter and follow our social media accounts more prominent.

Launching the Newsroom and plans for the future

A screenshot of how the Newsroom looked on the day we launched it
What the Newsroom looks like now

The new Newsroom was launched on 10 December 2018, as a “minimum viable product”. This means that some of the features described above are not included yet, but we are continuing development behind the scenes. I am also carrying out evaluation of this first version (including research with users of course!). We plan to launch the next version in the spring.