Product Manager & Founder

Synopted News // 2013-16

What was Synopted News?

Synopted News (2013-16) helped readers understand the news easily.

Synopted believed that there are a large number of readers deeply interested in understanding the world who are dissatisfied with scouring their social feeds, search, and repetitious articles for in-depth news.

Synopted was primarily a web app that allowed readers to follow stories of their interest, and provided original contextual updates on them. The emphasis was not on summarising facts and figures, but explaining their relevance simply.

You said that Synopted provided contextual updates? What does that even mean?

Well, it was very much like this page. I’m answering the questions I think you, my reader, might have about its subject: Synopted and the role I played at Synopted. I could tell you I worked at Synopted from 2013-16 and list my achievements in bullet points. That would be great on my resume, but if you wanted to understand a bit more about what it was like building a news product, what I loved about it and what I found difficult, perhaps this format would be more informative and interesting.

Ok, so what did you do for Synopted News?

I was the founder of Synopted and grew into a product and research role.

I led a small team of freelance designers and developers to build our initial prototypes. The first version of the product that was released in 2014 failed miserably. We were interested in measuring retention and retention was under 5%.

Ouch.

Right! But I find that it was a pivotal moment for both the product and myself. In analysing the failure, I shifted our team’s focus to qualitative research. I did the startup classic of walking out of the building to observe people use the product. In testing to see if people retained information better from Synopted than their current source of news, I found that they did.. not. The interface was utterly confusing. More importantly, I realised that news readers have very, very different needs and behaviours. Synopted wasn’t built with an understanding of that!

So you didn’t build something people wanted?

No. We never studied the needs and behaviours of news readers. Without that, it was impossible to build something people would've wanted.

Seems like an obvious mistake.

It really should’ve been obvious to us at the time. To me, particularly, because I was driving the show. I was coming from a journalism mindset though, where we always assume we’re catering to a “mass audience”. Customer segments in news are practically unheard of, let alone studied.

So what did you do next? Research?

I was based in India, so I conducted research into the needs and behaviours of news readers in urban and rural India. I found distinct customer segments interested in staying well informed that were underserved: professional, tech savvy women; farmers with access to smartphones but not to hyperlocal news; school kids who trust their institutes to pick sources for them; and so on.

There’s opportunity to redesign their reading experiences on the web. It might even be imperative to do so.

But why would you want to solve that problem? Isn’t it an issue that the news industry has to face as a whole?

It does. When I started Synopted in mid-2013, it was because I was a former journalist who was finding it hard to find great news to read. I was scrolling past a couple of hundred links a day, clicking on a dozen, reading information I already knew that had repeated itself in half the articles, and getting frustrated at the ads that kept popping up in the middle of that process. There was a lot of noise, not enough news.

I think it’s crucial that people have access to information that is accurate, timely, and nuanced. It shouldn’t have to be a struggle to find or a pain to read.

News has shifted from print to web. It is still supported primarily by advertising. This leads to two issues: first, advertising is not likely to generate enough revenue to support news. Information is a commodity online, how can it command a premium? 
Second, user experience really, really suffers. Currently, the most click-worthy content is rewarded, not the most worthy. The founding principle of journalism is that it serves readers information that is relevant and important. That goal isn’t quite being met. To serve readers online, their needs and behaviours must be understood. Reading experiences must be designed on the basis of that understanding.

I believe it is an industry-wide issue. Synopted was my shot at proposing a solution to the problem.

After all that user research, what impact did it have on Synopted?

It changed our focus completely. Recognising that there was no such thing as a mass audience helped us think more like a tech company than a news publisher. And our later product iterations had retention between 20-30%.

And did it have an impact on you?

Absolutely! I changed my product process completely. I prioritised the role of research in deciding what to build and testing to see if what was built actually helped readers. I focused our team’s efforts on testing products for specific customer segments and shortened our iteration times.

I became a better product manager.