How Apps Should Handle Bad News

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable about tech writing than having to side-step a real tragedy to make a point about technology, but I think the following will be worth it.

This morning at 6:00 a.m., I opened my eyes, saw that it was still dark, fumbled for my phone to shut off the alarm, and learned that “Taliban gunmen kill[ed] dozens of children in ongoing school attack in Pakistan.” My heart exploded into ten million pieces and my mind turned into magma, and then the clock struck 6:01, so I got out of bed.

Now I’m operating at about 25% capacity. After that emotional jolt, my whole day is thrown off. But it’s not because of bad news; I would have seen that soon anyway. It’s because of a user experience design decision.

We’re living in the golden age of breaking news. All the media technologies are in place to keep the world’s citizens constantly informed and up to date. This is essential because we can now respond to crises live, together, keeping international attention focused on what matters. The tools are all built and working. But they’re frequently misused.

The app I use to inform me of breaking news is called Circa. It’s the best one out there. When I’m sitting at my desk, I get news from reading my Twitter feed, but Circa is the only app that I’ve granted permission to push a notification to me when something big is happening. Most of the time, I trust Circa to do this well. Its editorial control is excellent, and the headlines are always worded clearly, informatively, and without manipulation, a rare combination in a news publishing world dominated by clickbait.

Circa’s user experience is almost perfectly thought through, but last night revealed one important flaw. If Circa’s design objective was to build the most informative news app in the world, they accomplished the mission. But what if Circa were designed to be the news app to inform the most prepared citizens in the world? Would it work differently?

To be fair, maybe that was Circa’s design mission — if I were still a real tech journalist, I would have asked them before writing this post — but regardless, I think they missed a key step. Circa’s current settings fail to consider whether someone who does want breaking news alerts during the day still wants them in the middle of the night. Even though I use my phone’s Do Not Disturb mode while I sleep, any news that Circa broadcasts when it’s nighttime Pacific time will be among the first things to greet me when I wake up, no matter how horrible.

That means, unlike most mornings, I don’t have time to brush my teeth, make tea, and prepare myself for the always-harrowing task of reading the news. On most mornings, my spirit is strong when I start taking in news, and it fires me up and makes me engage the world. But when something awful sneaks in overnight and gets me when I’m weak, it causes despair, not engagement.

I think news tech companies should be optimizing for healthy, engaged citizens, even if it adds complexity to their engineering. News is hard to read. Most online “News Feeds” are full of empty fluff because no one flinches while reading them. If you want to retain the few people who can actually handle reading news, you have to take care of them. I don’t mean coddle them or shelter them, I mean strengthen them instead of weakening them. (Weakening them with terror and violence and then selling ads for pharmaceuticals to soothe them is, of course, the cable TV model.) That makes online news the ideal place to start designing for the rhythms of information. For Circa, that would mean creating a setting for the start time for breaking news alerts.

The thing is, part of Circa’s product already works this way. Its amazing, personalized Daily Brief feature does let you choose the delivery time. Affording the same control to breaking news notifications would go a long way toward helping Circa users be better citizens.