December 23, 2013

As 2013 wraps up I have been reviewing progress since beginning the Structured Stories project some 5 months ago. The key question at this stage is whether the Structured Stories technology is currently delivering an experience of news that is genuinely different from existing digital news channels. I believe that it is, although whether others will agree with me, or whether that experience is different in a useful way, or whether that difference can feasibly be delivered at scale are all questions that can only be answered by releasing a public newsreader and then gathering and assessing analytics from actual use.

Nonetheless I think it might be useful to describe this different experience of news as perceived by a few early testers using the development UI. I cannot publish full details about the technology or about the experience that it delivers until I have some intellectual property protection in place, but I can give an overview of the general texture of the experience.

Keep in mind that the events and causal relationships that are currently stored in the prototype narrative structures are solely within the domain of Los Angeles city government during November and December 2013. Quantitatively this represents approximately 25 stories, most of which contain between 5 and 15 events – an event density that is very roughly equivalent to about 80 ‘traditional’ news articles about L.A. local government. The capture/reporting of these events is also very elementary and is done from mainstream press reports, from a daily summary document provided by the L.A. City Clerk’s office and from blog posts and press releases from key characters in the stories (primarily L.A. city council members).

Given all these caveats, my major observations are as follows:

1) Efficiency of news consumption. Readers seem to be able to consume a lot of ‘real news’ in a short time. In terms of ‘number-of-events-per-minute’ the improvement seems to be substantial – possibly 5x or more. Furthermore, this efficiency seems to be achievable with improved comprehension, as measured by an informal assessment of ability to answer key questions about the narrative. More systematic measurement of the efficiency of news consumption on a production environment is possible via formal user testing and will provide definitive metrics on this.

2) Integrated path to detail. The effect of integrated access to ancillary information or content relevant to either individual events or to narratives is quite striking. Exploring within the Structured Stories environment (e.g. quotes or other discourse elements) is useful, but it is the effortless direct access to raw sources, to knowledge graph or wikipedia entries, to a variety of discourses (articles, etc) about particular events/narratives and to other related linked information that is most powerful. Furthermore, accessing external resources from the Structured Stories UI does not feel like being ‘interrupted’ while consuming a narrative via a text article, but instead feels naturally integrated into the experience of consuming the narrative. It is not merely that this ability to access ancillary information is interesting, but it also enables one to feel in full control of the interpretation of events and narratives. Some measurement of this phenomena is probably achievable with relatively standard analytics.

3) A sense of coherence. Subjectively, consuming news via the Structured Stories environment just feels right. It feels complete, authentic and efficient – one evaluator described it as combining the ease of bullet points with the depth of long-form articles. Part of this probably comes from reader’s natural affinity for clean narrative structure, but the experience of coherence is also likely delivered through the clear visibility of events, of their relationship to other events and of their place within the overall narrative – all of which make it easy to continually ‘know where you stand’ while consuming a narrative. I am seeking a quantifiable metric for this sense of coherence, and I suspect that it may be the key enabler of the seemingly improved comprehension of narratives mentioned earlier.

4) A sense of control. The experience of consuming news within the Structured Stories prototype environment is primarily an experience of control. You are constantly making decisions about what to pursue, how much detail you require, how much ‘color’ you require, whether you need to or want to read external discourses/articles, etc. There is no sense of having to invest in consuming part of a story before knowing whether it is interesting, or of being passively fed a stream of content morsels, or of a mismatch between your required level of detail and the level of detail in the presentation, or of suspicion about the value or credibility or relevance of either content summaries or the content itself, or of regret after investing in consuming a story. It is not a search experience, because the entire experience is guided by the narrative structure, but it is ‘search-like’ in its level of control and engagement – for better or for worse.

5) Permanence. It is probably a little early to be commenting on the ‘sense of permanence’ that is engendered by the Structured Stories environment, but I think that it is important. Although completely focused on news, the Structured Stories environment is engaged with as ‘stock’ rather than as ‘flow’. Some events in the Structured Stories narratives date back years, because they are the causes of current events. Other events arise and are added to existing narratives, even thought those narratives may have already seemed ‘complete’. There are far fewer stories than articles and these stories and their constituent events are permanent artifacts – much more like Wikipedia than like digital media news streams, even for same-day breaking news. This changes how they are perceived, especially when engaging with the same story as it develops over days or weeks or, eventually, years.

There are other potentially valuable characteristics of the Structured Stories approach that are not directly related to user experience, such as its compatibility with mobile and cross-platform consumption, its generation of rich analytics and the natural suitability of narratives for sharing on social media, etc. All of that, however, is irrelevant unless the deep experience of using this approach is genuinely different – and these very early, subjective and informal observations suggest that it might be. I hope to open the demonstration site to the public by April 2014 so that anyone who is interested can judge for themselves.