MyNewsStudio(MNS) is a career development website aimed at Indian business school students and aspirants. As part of founding team, I collaborated with technology and business partners to develop product strategy and lead design direction. In two years, we grew from an idea to a successful paid product live in 25 institutes across India with more than 10,000 active users.
Minimum Viable Product
The idea for MNS emerged from information overload problem that we faced as students. While Pulse and Flipboard could be used for International news; there wasn't a similar service available for local Indian news. Focussing on this opportunity gap, we developed a MVP in the form of a facebook app to leverage social sharing features of news feeds. Concept testing confirmed positive product reception. However, frequent facebook notifications were diverting user attention.
Identity design followed a twofold strategy:
1. Position ourselves as a trustworthy news application using traditional colour schemes.
2. Emphasize on the personal connection between user and product.
Following positive MVP reception, we re-launched the product as a standalone website. New colours improved perceived authenticity of the product. Interestingly, user feedback emphasised that the site was very cluttered and confusing to browse. This directly impacted user retention. Searching for a solution, we trapped ourselves in an iteration cycle. Tweaking column spacing, changing number of stories read, altering type size, adding and reducing features: each of this was A/B tested with no significant statistical or qualitative improvements.
The 'Aha!' Moment in Product Design
Taking a step back, we conducted usability tests to evaluate website design revealing critical insights:
1. Users browse from left to right. The current design was structured to be viewed from top to bottom and then left to right and so on. This dichotomy was creating confusion- which was translated as clutter.
2. Users were reluctant to scroll down in each section column. Since the screen remained the same, with only one column scrolling at a time- the repetitive action to scroll within each column was perceived as extremely tedious. This drastically reduced user interaction.
3. On an average, users viewed only the first 4 sections. Very few users utilized the option to load more sections- effectively reducing product width. To compare it to Google, users never went to the second page of results.
Combining these insights with secondary research- most notably the "F-Shaped Pattern for reading web content" by Jacob Nielson- a new design was introduced. This dramatically improved user interaction. Much like the F-shaped pattern, users could read news within each section and scan down for additional sections. Interestingly, even though the website had more content now- it was not labelled cluttered. This can be attributed to the fluid eye movement and user habits. The option to add sections was more visible, intuitive and determined the scroll length of the page. The product width usage also increased after the design change.
Pivoting business model with design insights
The most significant question for any application based startup is to find a way to monetize it's product. Focussing on our original problem space: 'reducing information overload', we analysed user statistics and feedback to reveal following insights:
1. Business school students/aspirants were our biggest users.
2. News stories are monotonous to read and their details are difficult to recall.
3. It is difficult to understand a story if it's background is not known. Researching backgrounds and keeping pace with future developments: both tasks are seen as time sink.
This posed new questions: How can monotonous educational topics be made easier to read and remember? What is the best strategy to compress information for quick retention? The answer was found in scientific research on "picture superiority effect" which says that concepts are much more likely to be remembered experientially if they are presented as pictures rather than as words. Using this, the concept of visual essays(NewsGraphs) was evolved. NewsGraphs provide a comprehensive background of a topic, it's current status as well as a critical opinion by an expert. These essays are constantly updated so that readers can find all information at a single point. The content is designed using attractive visuals to make it fun to read and easier to recall. The use of vibrant colours, explanatory images and carefully set type in unique layouts together create a much stronger memory aid.
With a repository of ~250 visual essays on news stories, company profiles and management principles-these are becoming an invaluable resource for time crunched students. To put it in context, visual essays have been so popular, that the company pivoted from being a news aggregator to a visual essay developer in its core offering. The biggest break through was finally launching a paid subscription model for the product. Using design as a strategy for market differentiation, while recognising and addressing user pain points, increased business returns. Based on massive user requests we expanded the topics covered in NewsGraphs and started making them for overview of basic finance topics- these have been named QuickNotes and have turned out to be very popular as well. Further features like "Quizzes" based on each essay are used to test users knowledge and reinforce comprehension.
Product evolution- Identifying new opportunities
Indian business school aspirants take Common Aptitude Test (CAT) to gain entry into elite institutes. We observed extensive user adoption of MNS by students preparing for CAT exam since these business school aspirants also face similar challenges of time crunch and information overload while preparing for group discussions (GD) and personal interviews (PI), two crucial rounds which follow the CAT written exam. The news aggregator as well as the visual essays satisfied the needs for the GD and PI preparation.
However for most aspirants clearing the written exam itself is the biggest hurdle and the vocabulary part is considered to be the most challenging aspect of the CAT exam. Seeing that these aspirants used rote learning for improving vocabulary, we observed an opportunity to develop a comprehensive system for vocabulary learning. In "Using visuals to help the second language learner" (The Reading Teacher, Vol. 34, No. 5 (Feb., 1981), pp. 539-546); Richard Sinatra argues that pictures provide a situational context for developing vocabulary. This idea gave birth to "Visual Dictionary"- which closely follows the idea of "visual essays".
In the above picture, the juxtaposition of knights amidst a modern background shows the idea of anachronism much easily than a verbal definition. The combination of using a mnemonic in reference to the picture and a sentence explaining the picture further strengthens the concept. This never-before developed unique mix of visual, verbal and mnemonic aids have proved powerful in user studies where participants have reported a marked increase in memory retention.
The case shows how "leading with design" proved to be an effective product development strategy for a startup. Adopting agile product development to continuously iterate and test products is invaluable for product improvement.
Business Pivot: Moving into Mobile Platforms
To change is to grow. As MyNewsStudio scaled, we faced a lot of logistical challenges. With a dwindling cash reserve, it became increasingly important to prioritise development efforts and focus on our strong points. As a result, MyNewsStudio has now evolved into an android application called 'NewsBytes.' It can be downloaded from Playstore .