NPR Firecast Product Prototype
Firecast is an NPR Digital Services pilot product and the second iteration of another NPR DS product called, “Snowmaggeddon.”
Both Firecast and Snowmaggeddon were part of a product pilot strategy meant to test how well a dynamic breaking news template would work with readers and NPR member stations. The goal of this line of products is to be the ultimate resource for breaking news about a particular event and at the same time provide NPR member stations with an easy to use tool to distribute and monitor their event coverage.
During the first product pilot, Snowmaggeddon was used by WAMU, to cover the Snowquester in March of 2013. In April my team decided to continue the pilot and for the second round we chose to work with KUNC in Colorado. Firecast was then developed to be used by KUNC’s digital staff during their ongoing coverage of the Colorado wildfire season.
Much more than its predecessor, the Firecast product prototype met the needs of several types of users all the while maintaining its scalability. As the Product and Project Manager I oversaw Firecast’s day-to-day progress, spearheaded the development, set goals and updated stakeholders. My duties also included coding and designing the product and conducting usability tests.
Visit Firecast here, take a quick glance at my pilot user guide, or read more about what went into making the project happen below.
With the second iteration of Snowmaggeddon, we wanted to test how well the product would do during an event that was spread over an extended period of time. The initial WAMU pilot lasted 24-hours and while we gained significant insight into how the product worked in the wild, we were left with additional questions and ideas on how we could improve the template.
After Snowmaggeddon’s product pilot we wanted to validate the following assumptions using Firecast:
- Firecast would work for an event that lasted over 24-hours.
- A station would be able to and/or be interested in keeping Firecast fed with content.
- The audience for Firecast would give their input on the event if we provided an area for them to contribute.
- Sharing would increase if we included the proper elements and calls to action.
- There would be more engagement and/or conversion concerning donations if we provided context.
The rest of Firecast’s assumptions were tests based on the initial pilot. These tests included the following:
- We wanted to determine whether or not a hybrid between an article and topic page would work well for a breaking news strategy.
- NPR wanted to ensure that the product would be something that stations wanted (which would then justify putting it on any roadmaps).
- We wanted to test if stations could feed the template during an event consistently.
- We were interested to see whether this was something the end user wanted and engaged with during a breaking news event.
- Finally, we wanted to test which components would work best and which we should reconsider should the product ever go into production.
Many of the elements from the original version of the template were improved upon.
The Story: The live blog was powered by the NPR Story API. Whereas Snowmaggeddon only featured a single post, Firecast also allowed readers to read and share multiple stories in a river of content from a single news category.
The Map: I worked with the NPR Apps team in Washington D.C. to repurpose their existing fire forecast map to focus on one location. The end result was that Firecast was able to provide readers with an iframed version of the NPR map that locked into the Colorado area.
Social: We kept the Twitter and Instagram feed in the template and included share buttons and metadata for Facebook and Twitter.
SEO: Since this was a prototype, there wasn’t going to be an ample amount of time to properly ingrain the page into the major search engines. However, I made sure to include basic SEO elements and provided KUNC with suggestions on best practices for boosting the page’s rank. For more on Firecast’s SEO strategies, visit this blog post.
Support: Firecast included a call to action for support that was put into context for the page. So, instead of just incorporating a standalone button into the template, KUNC was provided with a space to explain why the reader should give.
Since this was a prototype built around breaking news only, and I didn’t want to increase the project’s scope, the mobile giving experience wasn’t awesome (responsive payment gateways were an issue), but simply identifying that users were interested in mobile giving was enough information for us.
Comments: After doing some market research and seeing how other media outlets covered the Snowquester in March, we decided to include Disqus comments in the hopes that this would increase engagement and lengthen the time readers stayed on the page.
Branding: The station had the ability to change the logo, event name and page title, among other elements, in the configuration file.
Images: The slideshow for the template pulled images from a station-owned Picasa account using an API call.
I spearheaded the day-to-day of Firecast’s production using Scrum as a framework. My three main sprints (codenamed Storm, Nancy and Regine) used items from a product backlog we updated during our first pilot’s sprint retrospective in March.
As mentioned, my duties with Firecast went beyond grooming stories, setting meetings and working with the client, KUNC. In order to complete the template I had to do much of the development work on my own, helped in part by the previous code and two of NPR’s Developers. My biggest tasks was the template’s redesign, which I undertook to improve the reader’s overall experience.
I worked independently on the template daily and coordinated with Developers and stakeholders several times a week. Even more than before, my ability to pull in resources and subject matter experts from various departments was crucial in making sure elements of production that were out of my hands were completed on time.
Finally, as I built the template, I reworked several of the features to create a smoother, more efficient onboarding process for future pilots. As the project’s production came to an end I also created a guide to summarize the steps needed to run the pilot.
Much of the project required self-direction and independent work on my part. Every step of the way I had to think creativity in order to solve a variety of issues and in the end I’m confident these efforts will lead to a successful, fully-fledged product.