Design principles for news abundance

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently observed (Guardian, Techonomy) that the Internet is disruptive because it replaces information scarcity with information abundance. People expect to access this abundance of information easily.

Traditional design rules don’t apply

What is now scarce in our busy world is reader attention, not “column inches” of news print. So digital media is breaking some of the “old” rules and assumptions for presenting news, such as:

  • Only main subjects (topical channels) need be presented to satisfy readers.
  • Only a few stories need to be presented.
  • It’s too difficult, expensive, and manually cumbersome to organize thousands of stories.

The new design principles

With information abundance, news consumers want systems that help them to manage their reading attention. It’s not practical to turn too many pages or see them all at once. So what are the new design principles for publishers to compete in the Age of Abundance — when a digital newspaper can contain thousands of pages on hundreds of topics?

1. Prioritize channels to focus information. Each of us can follow only a few subject areas, yet these areas are not the same across every person. Prioritization helps information consumers find channels in their primary areas of interest — mainstream and specialized.

2. Bring in the experts; organize. It is easier to find, catch up, keep up, discover, navigate across, and learn information if it is well organized. Expert curators provide the best organizations, particularly if tunable with feedback.

3. Help users forage efficiently. Based on the principles of information foraging, readers shift their attention based on whether they have a minute or two to browse/skim the news, or the mindspace to read in detail. Efficient scanning can be enabled by providing “top” or “hottest” stories they can skim across their channels and within each level of topics in a channel. Efficient navigation can be provided by enabling readers to drill down on interesting topics to get the next level of topics and more articles.

4. Provide the sideways perspective. Like a tree with its branches of stories, each channel has its topics and subtopics, and collectively all the trees form a forest of organized information. If we are browsing topics in one channel, how can we discover related information in another one?  Exploring related topics is more than just seeing “related stories”; it is about jumping to different points of view and different specializations. Ideally, connections between topics of interest should be discovered automatically and presented to readers.

Thriving with information abundance

Abundance is here to stay. No matter how the economics sort out for publishers’ subscription models, paywalls, content farms, aggregation, and advertising, consumers will not be satisfied with artificial scarcity. As Steve Rosenbaum argues in his analysis of media consumption, publishers who limit readers to their own narrow reporting are losing audiences.

There’s an opportunity to create a new generation of news/information delivery systems — optimized for information abundance — on all kinds of digital devices.

 Editor: Sonal Chokshi

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