Google’s Living Stories promises leap in usability

google_livingstoriesThere was a torrent of announcements from Google this week — among them Living Stories, which has intriguing prospects for journalists.

As Dan Gillmor suggests, a better name would probably be Living Topics. The service, which is an amazing technological feat, groups news stories and deconstructs them for better online viewing. Google says the automated initiative, which it launched in co-operation with the New York Times and the Washington Post, does three things:

  • Puts the entire coverage of a story under a single URL
  • Chunks up the story elements by theme and form
  • Customizes the reading experience so each person sees story developments new to them

The main benefit appears to be that it automatically generates context for stories by creating bite-sized content summaries and aggressively linking between them. For example, users can sort the story content by subtopics, major characters, quotes, external links, images, graphics, video, audio, etc. The size of the story summary also indicates its importance and newness, according to this Google video.

The Living Stories site isn’t optimized for my iPhone in any way. No doubt that’s coming; this sorting and grouping feature would seem tailor-made for mobile users.

Each topic starts with a dynamic topic summary and timeline. But the service doesn’t just reformat existing content. At the story level, there are some subtle differences from the versions that appear on the news outlet’s website. Take the War in Afghanistan Living Story and a story that’s part of it (Afghan Says Army Will Need Help Until 2024) , which is also on the Times’ website. In the Living Stories version …

  • a link to Hamid Karzai, for example, goes not to a detailed bio like the one on the Times site, but to a pop-up snippet description
  • there’s a link (“pledged to begin withdrawing American troops”) to a related story that isn’t made on the Times site
  • an interactive map, which is not in the Times story, shows the location of the capital, Kabul.

The service has the potential to improve the online reading experience in a number of ways:

  • by narrowing the inverted pyramid, so stories are less broad at the top — and more to the point — because the context surrounds it
  • by including more summaries, which usability advocate Jakob Nielsen says are crucial for online reading
  • by more aggressively linking content than human editors can — thereby improving the user experience on small screens

Still, there seem to be limitations. The importance of topic pages would seem to be diminishing as people increasingly consume content at the story level via Twitter and Facebook links. And I can think of many stories that won’t fit easily under topic designations.

But it’s a worthy innovation. I’m waiting for the mobile version.

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