How We Built the News Briefing our Audience Wanted to Hear

Getting it wrong early helped Chemical & Engineering News develop the right product faster

(Will Ludwig/C&EN)

Smart speakers are growing in popularity, but that doesn’t mean they’re a smart bet for news. That’s because asking for the news doesn’t top the list of ways that people are using them. In fact, news consumption is fifth after playing music, answering general questions, getting weather updates, and setting alarms or reminders.

So, why would a niche publication put resources into developing a news product for Amazon Echo now? Alexa, tell me about Chemical & Engineering News…

Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) is part of the American Chemical Society, a professional membership organization for chemists who work in universities, government agencies, and chemistry-related industries.

Our reporters know that there are many ways to write a story, and our audience team knows that there are just as many ways to deliver our stories. Some of our readers want to flip through our entire weekly print magazine in one sitting on a Saturday morning; some of them want to get just the latest news highlights in their email.

C&EN’s readership is smart, and they expect us to deliver compelling, scientifically accurate journalism that keeps them informed about chemistry research, business, and policy. We’ve been doing that for nearly a hundred years with our weekly print magazine, and we continue to look for ways to meet our readers where they are. We know that chemists read C&EN while at work, many of them in laboratories where voice gives our readers an opportunity to listen without taking off their gloves.

This is a story about a new approach to product development at C&EN and how we stopped building for our audience and started building with them.

Testing our Assumptions

Our newsroom moves quickly, and it does some things—like reporting research and explaining what that research means for chemistry at-large—very well. Where we have struggled, alongside many of our colleagues in the news industry, is in creating systems and workflows that allow us to develop and test new ideas and products fast.

In 2018, we got serious about changing that, and we tackled that change on a few different fronts.

  • We formed a cross-functional product team, and we overhauled the way we think about and manage development for our news products. We placed an emphasis on experimentation, transparency, audience feedback, and iterative progress.

  • We started recording all of our ideas, instead of putting forward only the loudest or letting good ideas fall through the cracks. We created and instituted a process for receiving, processing, and tracking product requests with a Slack + Asana integration.

  • We built a roadmap and a product backlog to prioritize all of those ideas and requests at an organization level and at a team level.

  • Then we started working together in two-week sprints. In sprints, our product team moves ideas through specific phases of product development—research, requirements gathering, design, and development—in repeating, non-linear cycles, as needed.

  • Oh, and we launched a product research group, C&EN Reader Lab, to help us test our ideas, our products, and most often, our assumptions. We told our readers what we were up to—that we wanted to get their feedback on our ideas before we put too much work into them—and nearly 400 super-readers signed up to help.

Building a Voice MVP

When we started our voice project last year, we were just beginning to think about how we might reach our audience on smart speakers. Most of us didn’t yet own a smart speaker, let alone have a brilliant idea for viable voice-driven news product.

We brainstormed with stakeholders in the newsroom: our science desk editor, our multimedia team, and our audience engagement editor. During that brainstorming session, we batted around ideas for quizzes and games, a scientific glossary, re-packaging our podcast, and a top headlines news briefing. We wrote down our assumptions about whether or not our readers even used smart speakers, and we noted our questions for readers about how they used them, if they did.

Screenshot of brainstorming board

Our brainstorming board in Asana.

Then we turned to C&EN Reader Lab, our newly-formed reader research group. More than a dozen readers participated in discovery interviews in which we asked them to describe their smart speaker usage, their C&EN reading habits, what they might want to hear from C&EN on their smart speakers, and why.

When we asked about how they used their smart speakers, participants described passive listening at home in the mornings and evenings and during the day in their labs.

One C&EN reader said they use their smart speaker in the lab, and it’s “nice because I don’t have to take my gloves off in lab and go to the office and look something up.”

Another participant said, “I could be doing something active in the kitchen where my speaker is and listening versus actively reading or scrolling on a phone.”

Some asked for research highlights, some asked for top headlines, one person asked for it all: “Can I have everything from the magazine on there?” They all asked for a way to get caught up on the news while they were doing other things.

So, we took all this information back to the product team, and we built a prototype for a single-item news briefing. When we put the prototype in front of Reader Lab participants at an American Chemical Society annual meeting a few months later, they hated it.

Getting it Wrong Early is Part of the Process

We didn’t put much time into our first attempt at a news briefing for Alexa, and it just wasn’t that good. We’d taken a short news item, something that might be around 300 words in print, and set it up as an out-of-the-box Flash Briefing skill read by Alexa as text-to-speech. Testers said it was monotonous, too long, and too detailed for passive listening. They said the overall length was fine, but that it was too long for a single news item. They said they wanted more news, but in shorter soundbites. They told us to ditch the citations and the chemical formulas.

What we learned, fast, is that building a basic skill for voice is fairly straightforward. But creating a news product on a new platform that your audience will like and use is significantly harder.

But Getting it Right is Important, too

We launched the second version—a daily briefing for Alexa-enabled devices—in February. It’s called Chemistry Update by C&EN, and listeners who add it to their Flash Briefing can hear three short chemistry news items in under two minutes. It’s written and edited for Alexa, too, which means that we avoid chemical formulas and other terms that might be difficult for Alexa to pronounce.

The launch doesn’t mean that we’re finished with the experiment. We’re going to keep asking our readers what they think. We’re already thinking about how to simplify our workflow, whether or not to make the switch to reporter-read audio, how we might support topic-specific briefings, and when we’ll expand to other smart speakers, like Google Home.

Now, do yourself a favor, and ask Alexa to give it up for science. Go on, ask.



  • Jessica Morrison

    Jessica Morrison manages product development and user research for Chemical & Engineering News. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband Brandon and their two cats, Gypsum and Drupal.


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