Innovation @ BBG » UX/UI Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Usability Research aims to create a better Radio Free Asia website Fri, 20 Nov 2015 16:07:16 +0000 Xi Rotmil

Every time a person has a great experience with a website, a web app, a gadget, or a service, it’s because a creative team made crucial decisions about both design and implementation—decisions based on data about how people interact with a computer interface.

During August, September and October of this year ODDI and Radio Free Asia collaborated on an in depth user experience review of the the RFA desktop and mobile websites.

Radio Free Asia broadcasts domestic news and information of specific interest to its listeners in China, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma.  All broadcasts are solely in local language(s) and dialects.

Remote testing sets the stage.

ODDI used the CrazyEgg platform to get an overview of user behaviors during the month of August. 15 pages were followed for a total of 150,000 impressions. This allowed us to see where people were clicking, and where they were not. We also got an idea of how many people scroll down the pages and where most people stop. Finally testing allowed us to see where those users are coming from to begin with, and who clicks on what the most!

Remote testing gave us an overview of users interaction with the pages, and where some follow up with in-person testing might be useful.

From there ODDI:


We sat down with the RFA team and agreed on the test objectives, the questions used in the test, and characteristics of the people who will be trying out the design.


Radio Free Europe provided an excellent partitioned room. Video and audio was delivered from the testing room to the observer’s room via network connections.


The best place to perform these kinds of tests would be in the target countries. Since travel and recruitment would be prohibitively expensive, we sought out English as Second Language students at local universities.

Most of our participants did not know anything about the site prior to the test, and we are grateful for their fresh and valuable insights.

We recruited six participants to test the Chinese Web site and six participants to test the Chinese Mobile site: they were screened to be:

·         Native Chinese speakers

·         Very active news seekers when in China – especially those who visited blocked sites

·         Particularly interested in sensitive Chinese domestic news

·         All under 30

We also recruited six participants to test the Vietnamese Web site and six participants to test the Vietnamese Mobile site: they were screened to be:

·         Native Vietnamese speakers

·         Very active news seekers when in Vietnam ­‑ especially those who visited blocked sites

·         Particularly interested in sensitive Vietnamese domestic news

·         All under 30

The final group, while adhering to the screening parameters mentioned were an interesting mix of backgrounds, including students majoring in electrical engineering, environment science, computer science, applied math and information technology, who also displayed a range of feelings and reactions to the website.


In the test materials, we included specific background and warm up questions to ask, prompts for follow-up questions, tasks, as well as closing, debriefing questions that we want to ask each participant and an evaluation survey.



Each session was videotaped with one camera attached to the phone to record the user’s taps and gestures while a second one was focused on the user’s facial expressions. Observers in a separate room watched the live video feed and took notes.

We used software called Morae for in-house UX testing on tablets and mobile phones. Morae allows us to capture video — with more than one camera angle — and record scoring as we go. Having video of a participant’s hand movements allowed us to do a more accurate and thorough analysis of how they reacted during certain tasks. Also, since it was in-person, we asked follow-up questions immediately after a task to find out why a participant might have been confused about a task.

We also had a team of people from Radio Free Asia, who were observing the tests in a separate room and participated in the test by asking questions through Morae’s chat window at the end of each session.

The tests consisted of a detailed hour-long interview in English with a subject using his or her phone. After a short introduction, the user was asked to perform 9 tasks on the RFA mobile site. These questions and tasks were videotaped and timed (through Morae) to assess the ease with which the user could interact with the mobile site.

Participants were told they would be videotaped and asked to sign a photo release.

After an initial introduction and discussion of web news, each participant was read a set of instructions. The tasks were given to each participant one at a time on separate sheets of paper.  He or she was asked to read each task out loud before attempting to interact with the website. Mobile users were asked to bring their own phones and used them in the test.

The tests were administered in English, but each participant engaged with the website in their native language.

A native speaker in Mandarin or Vietnamese was on hand if the participant had trouble putting his or her views into English. About half the participants took advantage of this option. Some particularly taciturn participants were debriefed in their native language to ensure the test team was getting all of the results and not suffering from a language gap.

Participants were not coached by the moderator. When something did not go well, they were asked to assess the website and offer advice on how the user experience could be improved.

Occasionally at the end of a task the moderator revealed what should have happened, and asked the participant how the website could be improved.



At the end of each session, the moderator asked: “How’d that go?” Also, we invited observers from RFA to pass follow-up questions to the moderator or to ask questions themselves. We also prepared an evaluation survey for participants to fill out.


When we looked at those observations after the test, the weight of evidence helped us examine why particular things happened. From that examination, we developed theories about the causes of frustrations and problems. After we generated these theories, RFA team members can later use their expertise to determine how to fix design problems.


The quality of design is an indicator of credibility. 

Our overall suggestion is to refine and redesign the site. Three users mentioned that RFA’s website looked like a blog or Facebook page, and they doubted its trustworthiness for that reason. Our tests show that elements such as layout, consistency, typography, color and style all affect how users perceive a website.

In addition, the RFA design is three years old and needs to be updated. Among the changes that research suggested:

  • Refine typography and visual hierarchy to be easier to read for mobile first, since this is the most challenging device to design for.
  • Add timestamp to news articles.
  • Create a shorter page, heatmaps show 50% of users are only viewing 25% of the current page.
  • Icons and text do not have sufficient touch/clear area for touch screens on smart phones.
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BBG Mobile News apps get a huge update and redesign Wed, 27 Aug 2014 22:29:25 +0000 Will Sullivan The ODDI Mobile team is excited to announce we’ve begun rolling out the 3.0 redesign and functionality update to the BBG mobile news applications on the Google Android and Apple IOS mobile and tablet platforms. The platform that was awarded as 2014 finalists for “Best Mobile Publishing Platform or Service” by the GSMA Global Mobile Awards and “Best Multicultural App” by the Appy Awards is getting a big refresh.

Alhurra Android mobile app version 3.0Alhurra and Martí Noticias are already live for Apple IOS in the app stores and the Google Android version should be submitted soon after we iron out some last bugs and the analytics integration.

The mobile and tablet apps 3.0 version features:

  • Redesigned for all platforms to feature bigger, bolder images and typography
  • More easily accessible and usable navigation with a deep, touch-friendly side-loading feature
  • A new tablet-optimized version for larger format Androids and iPads to take advantage of the extra screen real estate
  • Much richer analytics suite to track usage and learn how to improve what our audiences demand
  • Related story suggestions to give audiences more information about the stories they’re interested in
  • Social media sharing improvements and Google+ support added
  • More prominent user-generated content submission on the app home screen so audiences can report news tips, photos, video and audio and send it directly to our service’s content management system
  • Language service UGC submission available directly in the Android system sharing tray for easy access to send multimedia content and news to our services
  • Android Home Screen Widget support with customizable categories, sizes and refresh intervals
  • Additional languages added for VOA (now supporting 44 language services) and RFE (now supporting 29 language services)
  • Google Chromecast streaming support for audio and video content
  • Tons of bug fixes

Marti Noticias on Apple IOS

We’ve done all this while still maintaining an app that is amazingly optimized for emerging market audiences with a small binary size (around 5 mb), offline saving of content, low-bandwidth mode, proxy integration, and a wide range of Android and Apple OSes supported going back more than 5 years (equivalent to decades in mobile technology history).

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless work of hundreds of language service producers (too many to name), their digital leaders Matthew, Hutch, Billy, Alen, Iscar, Mark, Martha, Steven, Rohit, Saeed, Catherine, Enver, Arkady P., Arkady B., Sasha, Martina, Natalia, Matilde, Kim and the Pangea team, our amazing analytics czar, Rebecca, and Ashley and Tyler, and last but not least the marauding ODDI mobile team of Ashok, Danish, Bo, Mo, Marian, Marek, Pavol, Pauli, Stan, and Al for his help last minute on screenshots and Adam and Rob for their support and leadership.

Over the next month (depending on final qa, analytics and localization testing), we’ll be submitting the VOA, RFE and RFA updates too. Get them all and learn more about our award-winning apps at:



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How to Do UX Testing on Tablets, In Cartoons Mon, 27 Jan 2014 16:01:33 +0000 Erica Malouf One of my great passions is traveling — I get a kick out of understanding other cultures, and how they use technology. As a graduate student, I am rarely able to travel, but working at the BBG is truly the next best thing.

We frequently interact with people from a broad array of cultural backgrounds, with fluency in various languages, who each share their unique perspective and offer a fascinating glimpse of a distant place. (The holiday parties and hallway networking spreads offer a tasty glimpse of distant places — BBG staff can really cook.) This cultural diversity also happens to be convenient for user experience testing because we are able to tap into our ‘natural resource’ to test our digital products, which are often targeted to a specific segment of our global audience.

Typically, when we’re doing in-house testing, we test each application in it’s intended language as well as in English, whether it’s a product for one of the 44 language services at Voice of America or another BBG entity. Most recently we have done testing for Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

The cultural diversity within BBG is convenient for user experience testing because we are able to tap into this ‘natural resource’ to test our digital products.

And so we need bilingual participants, who also fall into our target demographics, to provide our English-speaking developers, designers and testers with feedback we can understand. Thankfully, our gracious multi-lingual employees and interns are happy to oblige.

We’ve been using software called Morae for in-house UX testing on tablets and mobile phones. Morae allows us to capture video — with more than one camera angle — and record scoring as we go. Having video of a participant’s hand movements allows us to do a more accurate and thorough analysis of how they reacted during certain tasks, as opposed to just having a heat map and data that provide only part of the story. Also, since it’s in-person, we can ask follow-up questions immediately after a task to find out why a participant may have been confused about a task.

This comic strip breaks down how we do UX testing. Hat tip to the illustrious Steve Fuchs (one of our lead UX testers and designers at ODDI) who illustrated these, and who I often work with on UX testing.









One of the more interesting UX tests that I worked on was for RFE/RL mobile websites, which we tested in English and in various languages common in Russia and nearby. Without knowing anything about the site, several of our participants commented right away that it must not be from a Russia-based news network solely from the editorial choices, referring to the top stories on the home page. I recall one participant commenting that no Russian news outlet would dare have the Pussy Riot story front and center, if they reported on it all, because in-country news typically paints the Kremlin in a positive light.

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 10.01.22 AM

In addition to a responsive website, RFE/RL now offers a mobile app for Android and iOS.

Comments like those remind me why it’s so critical to provide an alternate point of view for people in countries where the press isn’t truly free — where people only hear one side of the story because the media is subject to repercussions for content published.

I find it ironic that in the U.S. we have so much freedom to chose what we read and so many options of media offering all points of view, and yet pundits and others are saying that we are increasingly choosing to consume news from organizations that support or confirm our existing point of view. Are we self-imposing what is forced on people in less free countries? It’s a similar concern to that voiced by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, at the recent BBG tech panel, who cautioned that we should consider the downside of personalized content streams.

It’s something I want to be more conscious of — in fact, I’ll be checking multiple news outlets tonight in order to get a more balanced view of the world, starting with the VOA news app that I recently helped test. Speaking of the VOA news apps, I have to brag that our mobile team at ODDI led by Will Sullivan has just been dubbed one of the top five mobile platforms in the world by the GSMA, which means we’re in the running to receive a prestigious award at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Please comment here if you have any questions or thoughts! We’d love to hear how you do UX/UI testing, especially for products intended for global audiences. You can also find us on Twitter: @BBGinnovate, @ericamalouf and @stevefuchs1.

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Apple IOS 7 evolves to flat design, merging with developing mobile industry interface standards Tue, 24 Sep 2013 18:43:06 +0000 Will Sullivan

Creepy IOS 6 vs 7 Icons, Scott Forstall vs. Jony Ive comparison image courtesy GadgetLove

On Wednesday, Apple publicly released it’s new IOS 7 operating system for mobile and tablet devices and with it came one of the most significant ( — and for some, controversial — design changes to the Apple Human Interface Guidelines (Apple’s strongly encouraged design principles that have driven apps and products on the platforms to be so uniformly designed) that has many major applications redesigning their interfaces from IOS 6 to IOS 7. It’s this heavy design guidance (or constraint, depending on which side of the fence you fall on) that has rooted Apple’s style and foundation in the history of mobile and tablet design.

Early on, Apple was a pioneer in digital skeuomorphism – the practice of making objects look like ‘real world’ objects. This can be observed in Apple’s old Notepad application designed with lines, texture, shredded paper edges and yellow background color, simulating a paper legal pad or the leather stitching details in the User Contacts application.

With early digital interfaces, using skeuomorphism can often help users unfamiliar with technologies or digital interfaces become more comfortable using apps by mimicking a ‘real world’ experiences they’re familiar with.

As digital literacy grows, moving away from this practice to a flat design becomes easier and a natural evolution of interface design. For some of our BBG audiences with lower digital literacy, and experience this could be good and bad news, but overall I think it’s positive. How familiar are people in rural Africa going to be with interfaces that mimic legal pads or leather-bound Day Planners? The jump to flat, cleaner and simpler interfaces might serve them better, despite having less experience navigating digital content.

With IOS 7 removing a lot of the beveling, textures and gradients, the interface becomes cleaner and more open. The design also appears incredibly more simple, but managing that simplicity with making a sophisticated, content- and feature-rich and usable user experiences requires a mastery of design.

Flat design also elevates content and its visual quality to a new level — a critically important factor for the BBG’s content producing entities — because all the design noise and textures are stripped away, having excellent, high-resolution, optimized images and video becomes increasingly important.

Patrick Keane on Venture Beat emphasized flat design’s importance for content and advertising:

“The shift from skeuomorphic to flat design is not purely aesthetic. Stripped of any ornamental clutter, the minimalistic design of iOS 7 elevates the content. The implication for advertisers is simple — if any aspect of an ad’s form or function is not integrated into the new interface, it will be a clear distraction from the user experience. Take the new Safari, for example.  It’s buttons and bars stay hidden until you scroll to reveal them and ‘Reading List’ in Safari consolidates web articles into a feed that you can seamlessly scroll through.”

The curious thing about these changes are how many mobile and tablet operating systems are converging on a “flat” design paradigm. The approach was first brought to the modern mobile market by Windows 8 and their tiled navigation interface. Google’s Android has also embraced simplicity and flat design in their 4.0 and newer platforms. This design principle merging is good news for those of us producing multi-platform apps.

As we continue to build out the BBG mobile and tablet applications we’re preparing a redesign this Winter for larger device interfaces that will further embrace flat design principles and allow our international content to sing by showcasing our journalism in bigger, bolder and cleaner interfaces. Stay tuned for more.

Oh, and yes, we’ve upgraded our apps to support IOS 7 in the meantime.

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The Beauty of Paper Prototyping: Low-tech UX Testing Yields Timely Feedback Thu, 12 Sep 2013 16:26:16 +0000 Erica Malouf We’re Testing a Digital Tool with Paper??

I admit to feeling very skeptical when I was first told we’d be doing a paper prototype UX test for a digital storytelling tool that my colleagues have been developing. Thoughts in my head included: How can a paper version of a tablet simulate what it’s like to use this tool on an actual iPad? Could users reacting to a paper mock-up possibly give us the feedback we need?

In concept, it sounded silly to have someone touch an image of a button on a piece of paper and then have an ODDI staff member pretend to be the computer and change out the paper with each touch  of the ‘screen.’ However, my tune changed on testing day as we went through the process.


The Set-up

We had four interns from our building at BBG participate—they were all in their twenties and generally savvy with technology. On our team, we had a moderator to guide the testers through the process, a person acting as ‘the computer,’ and several people on the panel to ask questions afterward. We also had a video camera set up to record all of the action.

During the test, our moderator read from a carefully prepared script that guided each participant through different tasks. While best practice dictates that one strictly follow the script, we were somewhat relaxed with this particular test and occasionally improvised in order to extract the information we needed.

The Results

Despite the fact that we only had a pool of four testers (testing usually requires a minimum of five for a paper prototype), we were able to get some extremely valuable feedback. None of our test subjects knew they would be testing a storytelling tool for breaking news, so it was telling that all of the participants guessed that it was a news application right away—we knew we were on the right track with the general design and feel. All of testers noticed at least one flaw in functionality and offered suggestions on design that continue to inform our decisions as we refine the tool.


A Testing Rule to Live By

My colleague Steve Fuchs (head of design at ODDI) taught me an important lesson about testing. He explained why we do paper prototyping at the early stages of the design process by equating it to the ’5-50-5000 rule of print production’.

“An error gets exponentially more expensive to fix the later it is caught in the production process.”

Essentially, he is saying that what we can test for maybe $5 and fix cheaply early in the development of a design project–be it a website, an app or any digital product–would cost more and more as we get further along in the process. The goal is to save time and money by catching things early with a simple and easily implemented UI test.

Take home lesson: in the early stages, don’t worry about creating a fancy UI/UX test that simulates the product perfectly—first do a low-tech test to fix the major flaws.

Paper prototyping is what I now think of as the quick and dirty way to do a first round of UI testing. I’m a convert. I also read a recent blog post from Jamie Tolentino on “The Next Web” that praises guerilla UX testing, further confirming my newfound appreciation.

Do you have any UX or UI testing rules, methodology or tips that you live by?


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Creating “Remembering Tiananmen”: iBook Allows Long-Form Journalism to Cross Closed Borders Mon, 22 Jul 2013 17:04:00 +0000 Steve Fuchs It is a cliché: you are walking down the street and a friend comes up holding a book and says: “Read this book. It changed my life!”

As with all clichés, there is a nugget of truth at its core.

A book, whether it is analog or digital, is a special thing. People have great expectations when they open a book. Readers are looking for a comprehensive, thoughtful, and immersive experience.

Whether it is a serialized collection of text-based stories for small e-readers, or an interactive audio/video/photo magazine for tablet devices, eBooks offer new channels for journalists to engage with an audience and tell great stories.

On June 4th, the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Radio Free Asia (RFA) released an iBook account of the 1989 protests in both Mandarin and English.

Remembering Tiananmen is RFA’s first fully interactive book for the tablet market. Produced in Mandarin and English, the publication gathers audio eyewitness accounts, historic “RFA exclusive” photography and video, as well as archive news photography; and pairs these previously published items with specially commissioned text, custom maps, and diagrams. The heart of the book is an interactive timeline that allows the reader to navigate events chronologically, in addition to traditional chapter-based browsing. Through the multi-media interface the viewer not only reads the narrative facts of events, but also experiences the sights and sounds of Beijing in the spring of 1989.

The Process.

As Director of the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) studio I led the team that matched our creative and technical resources with RFA content and editorial resources. The two teams worked intensely and collaboratively over a 3 month period.

Once an initial direction was decided and content was collected, the design and editorial team began to storyboard out what a book might look like. An interactive timeline was devised to anchor events in place and assist the reader in navigating the book. The events of the Spring of 1989 were also divided into 5 phases (The Protest Begins, The Politburo Splits, Tension Rises, Crackdown, and Aftermath) each of which would constitute a chapter of the book, and have its own section of timeline.

Decks of copy were needed to stitch the chapters together, along with an introduction and closing section. Video and photos needed to be at the higher qualities allowed on tablets. Chinese material needed to be translated to English and vice versa. At this point in the process a diagram of Tiananmen was commissioned, as well as a map of central Beijing, since many of the actions happened in the surrounding area.  Luckily, RFA had experienced editors who covered the Tiananmen from the ground, including Dan Southerland, now Executive Editor of RFA, but then China Bureau Chief from the Washington Post and Feng Xiaoming, now the Mandarin Service Director of RFA, who was a co-anchor for CCTV.

We used iBooks Author, as  well as Adobe CS6 tools, to layout and create the book. Part of the power of iBooks Author is that it allows editors to quickly assemble an interactive publication with no coding and minimal graphic knowledge.

But this same functionality makes iBooks Author a mixed bag for graphic designers, since templates are more complex to adapt and change than one-off pages. We found that the existing templates were too generic: our designers created a set of branded templates to give all RFA iBooks a distinctive look. We also invested technical and design time to create the custom timeline.

The good news for designers is, once the template and custom graphics are done, a trained editor can make all the picky text corrections, changes, and updates. This is a huge plus in a multi-lingual environment.

New devices create new challenges. While eReaders have been around for many years, tablet devices are relatively new. The iPad displays dozens of languages and a broad array of fonts, but  iBook Authur supports only a few languages in multi-touch format, and even fewer fonts. This currently results is real challenges in placing these native functioning books in iBook stores around the world. PDF and ePub formats are more universally accepted, but far less functional.

The “ah ha” Moment.

The first rough draft that could be loaded on a iPad was a considerable milestone, since the entire team finally experienced how the book actually “felt.” iBooks are meant to be experienced through multiple channels (and possibly in a nonlinear manner), and this working prototype generated a lot of crucial feedback on everything from how a slideshow was styled and how videos launched, to the size of touch targets on the timeline.

Journalism without borders.

Tucked inside a phone, or concealed on a USB stick, eBooks allow articulate, immersive, long-form journalism to get around restricted web environments, and across closed borders. This trait is a very significant one for the BBG news entities.

What we have learned.

A great editorial team must be paired with a great design team in order to turn previously published material into a meaningful new experience.  With all the multimedia components, an iBook is still a book, and good copywriting is a must. Edits need to be made to archival material to trim away elements that, with the passage of time, have become less relevant. Readers expect high quality graphics, interactive elements, as well as video and audio to yield an immersive storytelling experience. It is also crucial to take advantage of the native storytelling and navigation attributes of any particular device, and to do this you will have to prepare different editions of the same book for various platforms.

Remembering Tiananmen represents a powerful first foray for BBG into the iBook world of interactive storytelling.  The Chinese edition is aimed at an audience that was not even born when these events happened, and because of censorship, may not have any idea that the turmoil of 1989 ever took place. Will this iBook change anyone’s life? Possibly not, but it may start some very interesting conversations.

For more information:

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Going Old School: Telling Digital Stories in Analog Media Fri, 14 Jun 2013 19:10:09 +0000 robbole Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural DC-region Digital Analytics Association Symposium.  It was a great event with a lot of incredibly impressive folks doing interesting things, both inside the Federal Government, as well as leaders from NPR, PBS, NatGeo among others.  I would recommend anyone with any thoughts of learning more about how analytics are evolving to seek out and join the DC Chapter.  (Find more information about the DC Digital Analytics Association Symposium.)

I spoke the problem of constructing stories that start in one place (i.e. Radio) and extend or even end on another (i.e. mobile).  Just tune into any breaking news story and you can see how there is a confusing interplay across multiple channels.  An event, such as the recent Boston bombing, or even the Iranian elections today, exist in many places at once; on television, radio, social media, websites, SMS and the list goes on.  But how do you proactively use these channels – and the special qualities of each – to manage a coherent, interactive, engaging, relevant story?

While part of the issue is our relative inexperience in managing news over the plethora of platforms and channels, there are a few that are taking on the challenge of creating a new type of story for a multi-platform world.  These are the new storytellers, documentary film makers, and artists that are expanding their craft by bending, breaking and remixing narratives over traditional, digital and ever emerging channels.

For me the start of these new narratives began with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater War of the Worlds.  It was a radio story, but felt so real to the audience that mass panic set in among many of the listeners who believed the events were real.  This not only demonstrated the power of great storytelling over broadcast – perhaps the ultimate of what NPR calls “Driveway Moments” – but how a narrative actually had people driving to New Jersey to see if the aliens had actually landed.  Fast-forward to 2004 and the next leap forward was the series Lost, which broke out of the television format to continue the narrative arch, or the ‘mythology’ through multiple digital puzzles and hidden sites.  These are the foundations for what we are seeing today in multi-channel story-telling.

As I have thought more about the new narrative it is apparent that analytics must become an important tool for the story-tellers.  Rather than the old way of “more is better” as a proxy for quality (more audience = bigger success), the digital world allows story-tellers to hone their craft through nearly real-time feedback across multiple channels that can result in quick shifts, additions and changes to narratives depending on pockets of audience behavior and interests.

In my presentation, I choose to categorize how I am observing these story-tellers in three main buckets:

  • The Hand-Off where narrative arcs start in one place, but are continued on other channels that exploit the characteristics of that platform, such as interactivity of the web, or social of Facebook.
  • The Layering of information, each related to a central storyline, but different levels of information about that story.  The classic “For more information on this topic…” hand-off to a website is the ancestor of Layering.
  • The Extension is related to both above, but it is where a narrative starts and ends on one platform, but elements of the storyline, or minor story lines are ‘extended’ for fuller explanation on other channels.

Great places to see stories that exhibit this kind of narrative, such as Hand-Off stories include the whole “Expanded Star Wars Universe” of movies, books, games, comic books, videos, fan fiction, conventions, etc.  (I saw the original, but have become more immersed through the eyes of my 11 year old son…the joy of Star Wars Legos)  Lost is still, for me, the most fully realized version of the Layered story, though NY Time’s Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is another beautiful example.  Finally, Frontline’s collaboration with Pro Publica, especially their A Perfect Terrorist, is a wonderful example of Extension story-telling.

However, story-tellers, as mentioned above, need analytic tools to help them tell those stories.  The bulk of my presentation was my thinking about how we need to shape metrics and analytic tools to help us understand how things are working across multiple platforms.  I sketched out some categories of metrics I would love to have in my portfolio, as well as discuss the “one customer ID” problem we all face.

The best thing about my somewhat meandering talk was that after the presentation (see below) I got loads of questions, thoughts and critiques of how analytics needs to evolve to help support this emerging type of story-telling.  I am along for the ride like everyone else and look forward to working on these thorny problems together.


Download (PDF, 1.87MB)



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Part 1 of 2: International Broadcasting in the Era of Social Media Wed, 01 May 2013 06:00:35 +0000 April Deibert
On March 8, I attended the conference “International Broadcasting in the Era of Social Media” at the University of Southern California’s (USC)
Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.  There was so much that happened, I’ve had to split this summary up into Part 1 (below) and Part 2.  Below is a summary of what’s on the mind of some of the most influential international media organizations.

This conference attracted a number of influential speakers on the panels and the audience was full of journalism- and public diplomacy-minded folks who were eager to hear what social media strategies the international media giants use.  (There was also a follow up event on April 1 in Washington DC, co-sponsored by The USC Center on Public Diplomacy and The Public Diplomacy Council, at the American Foreign Service Association.)


Key Takeaways from Panel 1

Opening remarks were made by Ernest J. Wilson III, Dean, of USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, and Philip Seib, Director, of USC Center on Public Diplomacy.  Mr. Wilson discussed the role of the BBG/VOA in the international broadcasting realm and also discussed the role of newly appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry.  He noted that conferences such as this one have the potential to create a space for discussions to happen that can eventually lead to more solidified public diplomacy plans within the BBG and State Department.  He expressed his hopes that such discussions would make their way back to Washington DC.  Mr. Seib noted that he sees social media as a way for all of us to be participants and journalists.

Panel 1 consisted of Moderator Jay Wang (Associate Professor and Chair of USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism), Rajesh Mirchandani (Correspondent and Anchor of BBC News), Robert Wheelock (Executive Producer of Al Jazeera English), and Nicholas Wrenn (Vice President of CNNI Digital).

Mr. Mirchandani pointed out that journalists and producers who had a firm personal grasp of how social media was used and its potential effects generally translated into a better understanding of the tool’s professional scope.  He recommended going to where the action is, where the audience is, and to tweet where you are.  He said it is important for journalists in the field to follow tweets of those related to the story and to tweet quickly to his audience (as well as to tag his newsroom, @BBC, “so that the news desk sees and then re-tweets it to 9 million followers.”)  He notes that their biggest strength is that they have approximately 93 foreign bureaus, but their biggest challenge is “commercial and funding pressures”.  He and his team do see the benefit of translating content into as many languages as they can for web and radio, but that it is most beneficial to “have a core product” and that “credibility and continuity must be in everything.”  He agrees that it is a journalist’s job to “act as a filter and provide context” to tell an audience why an issue is important to them and to the world.

Mr. Wheelock admitted that he and his team weren’t sure how to incorporate social media in the beginning.  Initially, they tried getting “social stuff into coverage by having an attractive woman reading emails” on air.  He also discussed the newly purchased Al Jazeera English satellite channel and that they are trying to figure out how to adapt content for American viewership.  He noted an interesting fact that 40% of all Al Jazeera English web traffic indeed comes from the United States, but that substantial number of people in Africa also get their news from Al Jazeera.

He is unsure how social and TV will cooperate to work in the US as it does in other areas of the world since cable tends to be a risk in the US.  Referring to their American audience, “most prefer web,” but that Al Jazeera has a goal of being accessible on “all platforms” to reach everyone from students to policymakers.  As for the website, his team realized that “using the website to do long-form pieces” seems to work well.  An “eight minute piece online is better than a three minute piece on TV,” when it comes to storytelling, he explained.  He and his team are also encouraging the public to take pictures of specific issues, to get and touch and then ask others to verify in order to make the newsgathering and reporting process more open and transparent.

Mr. Wrenn assisted in launching CNN iReport.  CNN leadership had “an initial fear about the inability to control it,” he said, however, they later realized it could compliment traditional news by “keeping up with the audience and their habits.”  This required staff to continue to follow the rules of traditional journalism by being a filter, telling people what and why particular things are important.

He sees social media as a way to reach new audiences who see following updates on Twitter as easier than reading articles on the Internet or watching TV.  Mr. Wrenn wants CNN to “be part of a platform for conversation” with their 10 million Twitter followers.  Mr. Wrenn and his team know that CNN mobile use is highest in Nigeria (accompanied by very low desktop use).  They are focusing on the best platforms for particular audiences, all the while trying to focus on profits.  He recommends that journalists should not use Twitter for personal matters.  “They should only tweet things that they wouldn’t mind putting on air.”  He separates his Facebook and Twitter feeds into personal and professional streams for different audiences.

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For more info:

Check out this massive list of resources from the USC Center on Public Diplomacy—specifically on the topic of “International Broadcasting in the Era of Social Media.”

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Thoughts?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.

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(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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Interview with Andrew Golis, PBS FRONTLINE Tue, 05 Mar 2013 01:11:21 +0000 April Deibert Andrew Golis is the Director of Digital Media/Senior Editor at PBS FRONTLINE.  In September 2012, he and the rest of the FRONTLINE team won the General Excellence Award for Online Journalism from the Online News Association.  In December 2012, Golis was listed by Forbes in their annual “30 under 30” list for media.  He expanded FRONTLINE’s digital-first original reporting and analysis, and grew its digital audience by over 50% while launching a series of experiments in interactive video.  During this interview, Rob Bole (Director of Innovation at ODDI) and I speak with Golis about how he is continuing to help steer FRONTLINE’s traditional broadcast toward their digital future.


Full Video Interview [33min 42sec]


Key Takeaways

– Thinking about and producing content for the ‘Bored at Work’ Network vs. the ‘Lean Back at Home’ Network is equally important. Referring to phrases by BuzzFeed Founder/CEO Jonah Peretti, Golis notes that there tends to be a ‘bored at work’ network of users (those who like to access quick, bite-size pieces of information through video or easy-to-read articles in between other tasks) and a ‘lean back at home’ network of users (those who enjoy kicking back at home to watch a thought-provoking documentary).   The ‘bored at work’ network likely browse places like Buzzfeed, Gawker, Huffington Post, or Yahoo News/Blogs, while the ‘lean back at home’ users are likely to enjoy traditional evening broadcasts.

Within each of these networks are different ‘tribes’, or communities of thought.  Golis notes that FRONTLINE’s tribe is a uniquely difficult ‘tribe’ to organize, because it has to be built around “abstract and high-brow things such as transparency, accountability, fairness and the importance of narrative.”  Whereas most other tribes can be built around simple things like political party or niche interest.

Overlap in viewing and engagement practices between these audience networks is expected.  There are over 150 FRONTLINE shows streaming for free on the website.  Those who tend to be part of the ‘lean back at home’ network can also easily browse through the guilty pleasures of the ‘bored at work’ network. There is a seemingly endless supply of digital content linked to each documentary including full-length interviews, news about ongoing investigations, digitized official documents from archives, transcripts and more.  Golis notes that this strategy has encouraged engagement with a core group of FRONTLINE fans that continues to grow.  People tend to want to know more about issues that intrigue them and are eager to read follow-up threads about what happens with individuals, companies and organizations that FRONTLINE investigated.


– Creative audience engagement is keyTo build up your ‘tribes’, sometimes you must go to other ‘tribes’ and show your goods.  Sometimes there are scheduled live chats where the FRONTLINE producer and a reporter from a major news outlet take questions from the audience about the show (as was done for Cliffhanger).  FRONTLINE’s audience (a tribe) is made privy to the upcoming chat and the major news outlet (the other tribe) is made privy as well.  Thus, there is a pooling of two audiences that may be interested in what the other has to offer.  Golis explains that this is a great time to show your best content to the ‘other tribes’ so their audience will come on over in the future.  This may translate into converted users and a potential uptick in Facebook followers or newsletter signups.

Live-tweeting is another way to engage the filmmakers, reporters, commentators and audience members during broadcast.  This practice encourages all viewers to converse about the program as it’s happening.

Audience engagement can also come in the form of being receptive to groups most directly affected by the documentaries.  For example, Golis points out that after Flying Cheap aired, a lot of airline pilots contacted FRONTLINE to say that the investigative piece was missing a huge issue relating to the subcontracting of maintenance.  With a commitment to expanding on the comments to develop a story worthy of nearly an hour of television, the pilot’s comments facilitated the follow up show, Flying Cheaper.


– The depth of audience engagement means more than measuring the face value of web analytics.  Golis says that it is indeed important for FRONTLINE to know how many people they reach, but it is particularly important to understand the depth of that engagement.  While it may be great to reach a couple million unique users, Golis and his team are interested in keeping people engaged for a proper amount of time—either by watching the full-length documentaries or by getting them to click through all the other videos and documents on the FRONTLINE site.


– Design is important to create a natural stream of ongoing reporting for the audience to follow-up on.  Golis acknowledges the uncommon practice of FRONTLINE reporters publishing reports ahead of and after commissioned broadcasts.  For example, Law & Disorder reporters produced lots of follow up threads due to the huge interest in what happened following the broadcast.  After all, the original documentary resulted in the arrest of eight New Orleans police officers for corrupt conduct and boosted police department oversight policies.  Golis and the editorial staff have learned that the production of interactive reports (artifacts, transcripts, other documents) before and after a broadcast really creates a core demographic of interested followers.  Golis believes that “the more material that surfaces to show transparency, the more credible the reporting and the more interest it drives.”


– Storytelling with interactive artifacts counts for extra.  The process of developing the David Headley piece for A Perfect Terrorist evolved through several stages.  Golis expresses that YouTube is great, but it lacks interactivity to turn it into a real digital artifact.  To figure out how a story would look as an interactive video story, FRONTLINE invited several creative filmmakers to come up with new techniques.

One gentleman, Tom Jennings (FRONTLINE Producer for Law & Disorder, Doctor Hotspot, A Perfect Terrorist, and Money, Power & Wall Street), suggested that the Headley story should be told as a web of relationships.  For those who are not familiar with this story, Headley was the American who masterminded the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  He was a former heroine smuggler and a DEA informant.  According to Golis, Jennings knew that “Headley’s life was only made possible by this really complex web of relationships that he was able to play.”  Jennings laid out his vision for what this may look like as an interactive.

So a hack day was set up.  Initially, a radio piece was created.  As the audio progressed, the Headley story moved across a timeline. As the timeline moved along, it elaborated on various individual relationships that Headley had (such as law enforcement or terrorist cell connections).  Jennings then drew the Hadley network out on a whiteboard to create a visual.  The hack team felt that it would be ideal to be able to click on each item to watch video–then pause the video to look at other related bits of information.

The team then thought about a viral YouTube video of Picasso painting on glass.  So the team bought a giant piece of glass, set it up and they filmed Jennings talking to the camera while drawing the interactive web of relationships.  To create the interactive portion, FRONTLINE hired an interactive-focused firm to animate it to have nodes to click on.  The interactive team creatively used Popcorn.js to design custom-made interactive graphics.  Golis credits his editorial team’s success with this documentary to the fact that they developed the script first and then sought out the technology to build the visual form.


– Golis feels that collaboration between broadcast teams and digital teams will lead to some of the best reporting that FRONTLINE has ever done.  Reports are beginning to be posted for a broadcast about the NFL and concussions (scheduled to air later this year).  In it’s current form, their website Concussion Watch aims to continuously update digital artifacts to add to the transparency of the interactive publishing and broadcasting format.

With the adaptation of interactive reporting, FRONTLINE has also attracted new talent to the team through their broadcasts who are interested in expanding on the design of interactive materials.

And, to make videos more accessible and user-friendly, the FRONTLINE tag management system has been improved so that things can be easily sorted and found.  As an example, Golis specifically references the way they broke down the oral history site for The Choice 2012 by allowing for keyword/phrase searches like “Obama and Drones” or “Romney and Abortion.”


No time to watch the whole interview?  Here’s a couple snippets.

1. Golis on producing content for different types of audiences [3min 14sec]


2. Golis on the creative, editorial and technical process behind the interactive David Headley piece, A Perfect Terrorist [7min 41sec]:


For more information:


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(Thank you to Andrew Golis (@agolis) and Rob Bole (@rbole) for their contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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Google ‘Free Zone’ and Facebook ‘Zero’: Products Targeting Developing Populations Tue, 19 Feb 2013 20:42:05 +0000 April Deibert Internet access and Internet freedom in developing nations are two huge and ongoing challenges for service providers.  Google and Facebook–two major players in many people’s daily search and social activities–developed solutions of their own with the hope that there would be mass adoption leading to exponential growth.  But, as you’ll read, for every new solution there is an additional unforeseen challenge to overcome.



Google ‘Free Zone’

According to Google, ‘Free Zone’ is “a product that allows users to access Google+, Gmail, and Google Search on their mobile phone without incurring data charges.” ‘Free Zone’ is currently available in the Philippines via Globe Telecom at—all you need is a Google account to sign up.  “With the new mobile Internet promo, Globe is initially offering access to around 30 million Globe Prepaid and TM subscribers nationwide until March 31, 2013,” according to The Next Web.  While Google does plan on introducing the service offering to additional countries, it seems that the Philippines was chosen as the initial market due to the fact that 1) Google built the software and Globe became the first operator to make it work on its network, 2) data is expensive, and 3) there is a high number of mobile users with basic Internet-enabled devices.

What’s in it for the user?  Truly free access to the Internet via “” or another local access hub.  What’s in it for Google (and Facebook)?  The growth of the next billion Internet users, the opening up of new business opportunities, improved analytics snapshots of developing areas, a likely increase in the value of stock prices and immense international political power.

The challenge with this system in the future will likely be Google’s negotiation prowess with other international telecom operators to allow Google ‘Free Zone’ to operate.



Facebook ‘Zero’

Similar to Google, Facebook launched “a text-only version of the Facebook service that carriers can offer to their subscribers at no charge.”  Facebook ‘Zero’ ( is a lightweight version of the mobile site ( that “omits data intensive applications like photos,” says Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker.  ‘Zero’ refers to the fact that this mobile platform has a zero rating by telecom companies.  Having a zero rating means that certain types of data do not count against the user’s monthly data cap or prepaid quota.  Thus the user can then utilize a WAP protocol to access sites tailored for it—such as Facebook’s ‘’ if you’re in the right country and you have a WAP-enabled feature phone (non-smart phone).  The site is just text, but includes all the status update notifications available on the desktop or app versions.

So, after launching ‘Zero’ with a number of African mobile carriers in 2010, Facebook was able to add a substantial number of new users within those 18 months thanks to the free factor and the ease of use on basic phones.  In fact one blog states that in 2010, there was a 114% increase in Africa (within 18 months) on average.  The same blog states, as of December 2011, a total of 37+ million Facebook users had been added in Africa.  These may sound like insane increases, but taken into perspective, Facebook’s mobile outreach is still not necessarily being mass adopted.

For example, one blog states that Nigeria saw a “154% increase to 4,369,740” Facebook users (out of a population of 170,123,740 (July 2012 est.)), Ghana saw an “85% increase to 1,146,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 24,652,402 (July 2012 est.), and Kenya saw a “50% increase to 1,298,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.)).

The statistics on Kenya are particularly interesting because it is estimated that 99% of the Kenyan population has access to the Internet on their mobile device.  When you do the math, approximately just 3% of Kenyans were utilizing the free Facebook service at the time.  The number of mobile subscribers accessing the Internet through Telkom Kenya’s Orange network rose by 2.4 per cent (from 674,255 subscribers – accounting for 8.8 per cent of the overall market share – in June 2012, to 948,847 subscribers, accounting for 11.2 per cent of the market) during the period between July and September 2012.  So, there was roughly 8,471,848 mobile data subscribers out of the Kenyan population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.).

That means 99% of the Kenyan population has mobile friendly phones, but only 20% of them subscribe to data packages.  If ‘Zero’ is free to access, why aren’t there more Kenyan Facebook subscribers?  Quite the riddle, if I do say so myself.


Unforeseen Challenges for Both ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

The answer to why there aren’t more users actually may be simple.  For example, many people in rural areas still see Facebook access as “a luxury,” limited by a number of factors that first-world people don’t consider:

- There may be a lack of electricity at home to charge a phone and public charging areas may be limited or may cost money.

- It may be too difficult take and upload a profile photo, due to a lack of a camera, or lack of a working mobile phone camera, or lack of a data plan to upload the image even if a person took a photo on the mobile phone. (‘Zero’ is a text only version anyway, but not everyone wants a solely ‘Zero’-friendly profile.)

- There is a cost at Internet cafes to not only use the Internet, but also to scan/upload a photo and to create an email.

- A person may have travel to town to use the Internet and will need to pay for a ride on a bicycle, motorcycle, or matatu.

- But perhaps most important: using the Internet for 30 minutes costs the same as feeding maize porridge to a family for several days.

The simple cost/benefit analysis by average Kenyans may prove that Internet access just isn’t what they should spend their money on right now.  For a much more detailed explanation of the difficulties rural Kenyans have with Internet access, you’ve got to read this article here.  So interesting and with lots of first person quotes from actual Kenyans.


So, is Mobile Web Useless in Developing Countries?

This is debatable, but it is a fact that from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe many countries face a lack of Internet infrastructure, a lack of Internet freedom, restrictions on wi-fi, low-bandwidth capabilities and expensive access costs.  So, naturally, promoting mobile web–with access to free major sites–is actually a huge plus.

Mobile web may not be useless, but according to Vision Mobile, approximately 73% of the world’s mobile phones are not smart phones.  And, if users are able to afford access to a mobile phone, one blog states that “in countries in the developing world, the average monthly spend on mobile connectivity, which is often just voice and text, is 8-12% of the average take-home pay of a cell phone user.”  That’s rather significant.

All is not bleak, however.  There’s a ton that we can do to follow in these giant’s footsteps and improve upon their solutions to tough mobile web technology implementation and outreach in developing nations.  Afterall, infrastructure will likely continue to evolve over time leading to decreased costs and increased accessibility.

That leads me to my list of optimistic suggestions below.


What We Can Do to Follow in the Footsteps of ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

1.      Be aware that smart phones, wireless data packages, and wi-fi are still out of reach for many across the globe.

2.      Develop access for every type of phone.  Here’s a great chart outlining Facebook’s strategy to conquer the developing world through partnerships, acquisitions, and product rollouts: [insert chart and credit source]

3.      Incorporate partnerships with companies that provide technical aspects on mobile phones.  One example is Fonetwish.  “Fonetwish uses a little-known protocol common to nine out of 10 phones on the planet, called USSD, to create a text-based interface for sites such as Facbook,” states one blog.  In fact, Orange, one of the leading mobile carriers in Africa, rolled out Facebook by Fonetwish on a trial basis to 350,000 users in Egypt at the end of 2011.

4.      Remember that not every country can use the same business model.  Mexico is the one developing country, out of the top 10 countries with the most Facebook users, where none of the carriers have agreed to offer Facebook ‘Zero’.  Instead, Facebook offers “Facebook for Every Phone, a version installed on SIM cards that works on around 80 percent of phones,” states one Gizmodo blogger.

5.      Design and build apps to be effective in low-bandwidth situations.  Consider using low-tech solutions such as WAP, SMS and other technologies.

6.      Design websites and apps that are fast loading and don’t use much data to browse.  Limit the amount of graphics, images, and videos to a need-to-know basis.   Having an all text site may seem overtly simple, but may be very effective at reaching a particular population.

7.      Promote important and useful information on the front page of your website or app.  News, weather, health information, crop or livestock prices, blogs written by local people, etc.

8.      Host workshop days to train locals how to build mobile apps that serve their particular needs.  By training locals to code simple web services, the entrepreneurial spirit may catch on and evolve into ideas and services that foreigners have not considered.

9.      Deliver content in the local language.  Larger services may be able to automate this process better in the future by geo-targeting regions and auto-translating pages into a list of local languages.

10.   Fund studies to demonstrate the need for expanded telecom investment and communications outreach into developing areas.  Make a point that all solutions must be affordable and sustainable.

11.   Consider if offering ‘zero data’ apps and services.  This, however, may bring about a larger cost of charges incurred for data usage.  For a great list of some extra complexities to the model to consider, check out this blog here.

12.   Be sure that websites can be accessed from USSD enabled devices.

13.   Invest in UX testing at the local level.


What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.


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Thank you to Rob Bole for his contributions to this post.

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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