March 29, 2016

People can now track how many steps they take, what they eat, their sleep habits, their air conditioning usage and their finances from their phones. But there are still relatively few ways for folks to track their news consumption across publications from their mobile devices.

Most news analytics packages are still aimed at newsrooms to help them learn about their users and then use the data to make better decisions. And most products aimed at end users — the “Recommended for You” boxes found on many news sites — are based on previous reading habits on that particular news site or on that particular device.

Prototypes do exist that focus on analytics dashboards for end users: Students from the Northwestern University Knight Lab and hackers at an MIT Media Lab journalism hackathon created Slimformation and Newstrition, respectively — which each show readers’ existing news habits through a Google Chrome app. Slimformation even prescribes a reading goal for the next day, depending on what users have looked at the day before.

Another prototype, called Spectrum, was created by two students at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Spectrum extends the functionality of Slimformation to mobile devices and concentrates on one question: How do we amplify diversity in news consumption? It was developed by Henriette Chacar and Francesca Mirabile for a midterm assignment in a multiplatform storytelling and design class led by professor Mario Garcia. They see a user-centered news dashboard as a way to reinforce habits in daily news readers, and get them to come back to a site.

“We both get most of our news from our social media feeds, so we started thinking of features that would make people want to actively interact with the app, rather than just open Facebook,” said Mirabile. “We thought providing users with new information on their daily news-reading behaviors could encourage them to download it.”

The two looked at various news apps, including Quartz and Flipboard, as well as tracking apps for inspiration, including the iPhone’s health app, before deciding on the dashboard layout for Spectrum.

What I like about their dashboard is that it’s easy to understand, helps people figure out where their news is coming from and lets people know if they’re on top of the news on a daily basis. It helps users make decisions and set goals, without being overwhelming.

Personalized analytics dashboards don’t have to be limited to news; they could also extend to other parts of a news organization’s website, like the comment section. The Coral Project, for instance, recently developed a dashboard that allows publishers to identity their best commenters.

But what would that dashboard look like from the perspective of a user? That is, could it show me comments above this threshold, as rated by other users, or perhaps other factors? Maybe I want to see more comments from outside my geographic area, for instance, or from people who generally read news stories that I don’t generally consume. The dashboard could also, theoretically, show end users behavior to mimic and also incentivize them to participate even in the comments even more.

The idea to give these metrics directly to the end user is a powerful one: It builds a habit and allows the user to make choices based on data. They could also really help local newsrooms. Imagine a dashboard that measures how many local publications or stories we read on a weekly basis; or recommends local news if we’ve read too many pieces in national and international categories. Imagine a ‘streak’ where people try to read a local news story every day for a set period of time. This is how calorie counting on MyFitnessPal works; there’s no reason the functionality can’t be extended to the information we consume.

To take the idea a step further, I can also see newsrooms giving users the building blocks to make their own dashboards, by asking: What matters to you? We’ll help you measure it. In this way, users are also giving explicit permission to news organizations to measure their data — which may make them more comfortable with new business models in the future that are built on aggregating or selling data. It would also help newsrooms learn what their users find important — perhaps it’s a high reading level or a variety of topics, or maybe it’s news that keeps them updated every day with the news.

All of these approaches build habits and gamify the experience of reading the news. I wouldn’t just be using these devices to be informed, I’d be using them to extend my streak or improve my dashboard. I suspect that a more user-centered approach to analytics will also help newsrooms and advertisers, too. I would love to see your ideas for dashboards or what to measure in the comment section.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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