Media

Ocqur Reflections on user testing and the future

If you’ve ever built a product from scratch, you’ll inevitably have come up against the dilemma of whether to build it until you think its perfect before releasing it to users, or making a minimum viable product that ticks a few boxes and lets the users dictate the next iteration.

The latter is the approach we took with Ocqur, which is live blogging software that Ive been working on with Jonathan Frost and Andrew Fairbairn.

I’ve been overseeing the first round of user testing since we started building the service at the beginning of the year. Its been really educational and also thrilling to see it being used outside of our small circle, so I  thought I’d post a few thoughts about lessons learnt and what were planning for the future.

Structuring feedback is really tough

Early testers of Ocqur have been giving us feedback over the testing period. Some emailed me their thoughts, others blogged or tweeted about it, but testers were also required to fill out a questionnaire Id written.

The difficulty in providing a useful arena for feedback lies in getting an equal balance of serendipity and structure that allows you to get specific metrics. For example you write a question that asks the tester Which feature is the most important for Ocqur? A, B, or C? What if theres a D that you havent thought of? The tester might have D in mind as the most important feature, but youre not giving them the option to suggest it.

I think I managed to get the balance fairly well so we’ve got a workable set of percentages and figures regarding questions that can be answered with a yes or no, as well as long form feedback thats the result of more free choice questions.

There is a gap in the market

When we set out to build Ocqur, we saw it as an opportunity to create a liveblogging system that was simple but powerful and married good design to nice functionality. A lot of the feedback we got from testers was that they were surprised and pleased with how simple the product was.

Ive had some people ask me about the comparisons to Storify, and how to differentiate it from their offering.

To ask that kind of question is to miss the point a little. Storify is a great tool I use it frequently. But its not what were after. Publishing a Storify as live requires the user to constantly republish the page (which doesn’t automatically refresh if you’re a viewer) and inevitably constantly notify viewers that updates have been made. It works so much better to collect thoughts after an event has happened.

We think that liveblogging shouldnt be as complicated as it has been in the past. We think the current offerings are either poor or unaffordable to the majority of  bloggers, freelance and student journalists. Luckily at this early stage it seems like our testers felt the same.

People interpret features in different ways

The reason we decided to release to testers so early in development is because we didnt want to spend another 10 weeks building something only to find out that no one wanted it. User input at this early stage was vital.

At the same time, its interesting when testers throw up something that you really didnt think would be a big issue. For us this was being able to upload content from your desktop onto a live blog.

I have never done this, having worked with pretty much all the consumer liveblogging services out there. I tend to scrape content from various web sources, and if I need to take any photos from my phone for a liveblog I either post to Twitter or share to Dropbox.

But clearly our testers want this feature, and they’ve voted overwhelmingly with their feet.

So now the question is, what do they use it for? Documents? Audio? Video?

Asking users to rank the importance of desktop upload may seem fairly specific, but in reality people may have all sorts of ideas of why its important to them and what they actually want. To that end Im going to chat to those people who ranked it as very important individually and dig a bit deeper into why its an important feature.

The future

We had an overwhelming response when we put out a call for testers over double the amount of registrations that we needed for the first stage. If you’ve signed up and haven’t been contacted this time round, don’t worry well be sending out another iteration of the software in the next couple of months and you’ll be the first ones to get your hands on it.

A big thank you to everyone who’s participated so far, were really looking forward to sharing our plans for Ocqur with you in the months ahead.…

SKY NEWS SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY ITS NOT ARCHAIC, ITS JUST A NEW APPROACH

By now you’re all likely to be aware of Sky News making significant changes to their employees social media usage via an email to staff last Tuesday.

In this weeks Media Mouthwash podcast I called the policy anti-web, but Ive deliberately left it this long before writing something about it because I think its a much more nuanced issue than some dissenting voices have made out.

Don’t tweet when its someone elses story

This is probably the most galling aspect of the policy. If an employee isnt particularly social media-savvy, then theres no harm in another journalist using Twitter and other networks to promote and share their content in a way that means itll get maximum exposure.

If I was the only person sharing my own work around Twitter, then it’d get very limited traction, and theres no harm in staff helping get extra eyeballs onto a colleagues piece.

Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks

There is fundementally nothing wrong with this. If were acknowledging that Twitter is a medium like any other, and one that should sit alongside videos, blogs and audio reports amongst Sky News output, then it makes sense that it should be properly integrated with the news desk.

Communication with the desk is essential in order to make the news operation an efficient one. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, but I cant imagine the vast majority of news editors being too happy with a journalist breaking a story on Twitter and then strolling over and telling the desk about it a few minutes later.

Breaking news without context on Twitter holds little or no value for the journalist or his/her audience in itself. The value comes from using Twitter as the start of a narrative.

When I was covering the bomb blasts and shootings in Oslo, I started by using Storify to collect information and photos about events in the city centre. Then when people became aware of the shootings, I moved to turning my Twitter feed into one dedicated to covering new developments.

My follower count didn’t rise because I was constantly breaking new information on Twitter, but because I was able to organise it more efficiently into an understandable narrative than others covering it at the time. I didn’t retweet everything I saw, I thought carefully about how people following me would be able to easily understand what was happening.

Breaking news in itself holds little value were my parents really any the worse for getting the full picture of the London riots on Newsnight rather than watching it unfold in real time on Twitter?

Passing lines to the news desk before tweeting makes good sense in a large organisation because the news desk is the hub that controls their coverage. They can distribute information to correspondents, multimedia specialists and graphics teams.

The ego of a single journalist itching to grab a bit of social media limelight should be able to bow to the collective nature of a news operation in order to strengthen its overall coverage. As Martin Belam notes, being first really mattered when your rivals had a 24 hour print cycle before they could catch up.

If anything, this shows that Sky would like to step away from the never wrong for long tag that indicates theyre happy to be wrong as long as they correct themselves quickly.

The BBC are rarely quicker than Sky when it comes to breaking news, but hold far more trust because they seem to pride context and verification much more. Is it a bad thing that Sky want to move toward this model more? I dont think so.

Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter.

This is slightly more problematic, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that its removing the social from social media. As a Sky News employee, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to cover Oslo or the riots in the way that I did if Id adhered to this rule.

However, if you look at the social media usage of many journalists, they primarily use it as a promotional, rather than as a news gathering tool. Sky News new social media policy does not stop journalists from seeking out sources on Twitter, or finding photos that can be later added to strengthen news coverage. There are lots of journalists with big followings on Twitter, but only a fraction of them seem to use social media to actually dig things out and add another aspect to traditional sources.

If anything, the whole debate seems to be a microcosm of the divide that often seeks to engulf any rational discussion about online journalism. That is, if you don’t agree entirely with the popular view of mainstream media persistently not getting it, then your’e old news, you’re irrelevant, or Victorian.

I think its important to understand that there are many shades of grey what works for Sky News wouldn’t work for Tech Crunch and vice versa. This policy is neither surprising nor as draconian as some commentators have implied whats more interesting will be observing if it becomes indicative of Sky News shift to a markedly different kind of news provider.…