Quartz News Ignores User Intent With Its Conversational User Interface

Mar 19, 2016 | UX | 0 comments

(Photo: William Ismael, Flickr, CC Free Commercial Use)

Quartz recently released its first app that introduces a Conversational User Interface, not just to set up the app, but presenting news like chat. This approach was heralded as a breakthrough by tech media and embraced by many of my peers in the UX community.

I think it was a terrible idea. Quartz tried to make a splash with something seemingly innovative, new *. They used this approach, probably thinking they would remove friction and make for a more personal experience than your average news app.

The Substance of Quartz

The Quartz audience is diverse, but it probably also reads Vox, listens to NPR and reads more traditional magazines, such as The New Yorker. This audience is hungry for intelligently curated and edited news content.

Quartz, the material, consists of a crystallised mineral in a very specific structure. One strength of Quartz is to provide the right mix of interesting topics. It’s a bit like Medium, with a lot of in-depth and longer articles, albeit they don’t quite fit into the long-form category.

As a magazine, Quartz has a lot of strength in content and context. It is relevant to the moment, its writing style is driven by curiosity and it is successfully utilising blog methodology to break up the more rigid periodical publishing model most traditional magazines are stuck with.

Nevertheless it is a magazine. It is about discovery of interesting, relevant topics, and, most of it all, it is about reading.

Choosing a Conversational User Interface got Quartz the splash, the media attention they wanted. But it doesn’t do a service to the audience. Instead it commits one of the greatest sins in UX design, it ignores the user intent.

User Intent Is The Driver For All User Behaviour

Users may be surprised by being introduced to things they didn’t expect, and if it’s well done, this surprise may be a pleasant experience. However, the driving force that determines why a user arrives at a place, why they chose the direction to go there in the firs place, is intent.

What is your intent when you open a news or magazine app? You want to read. You don’t want to chat.

This is the major problem Quartz introduces with its app. It does not solve something, it creates a problem.

It took me 10 seconds to quit the app and delete it from my iPhone. I really wanted to like it, because I really like Quartz. But I got so annoyed too quickly. It felt like swimming against the tide.

There is a reason why other news apps guide users through a setup process to define their interests, and then the app learns from the user’s behaviour over time. These things work the way they work, because they have proven to be working well.

A good application for a conversational user interface would be any situation in which the users have questions: I want to talk to support. I want to have assistance with choosing something, informing myself about features or developments of a product. I want to have something explained.

All these applications begin with “I want to…”, the user intent. They don’t begin with “The company who makes this app wants me to…”.

* Conversational User Interfaces are not a new idea. Long before Siri replied to your questions, science fiction stories had introduced us to conversing computers. The movie “2010 – The Year We Made Contact” begins with a scene of Dr. Chandra talking to SAL, the sister computer of HAL 9000—who famously locked Dave out of the spaceship by tricking the astronaut in Stanley Kubrik’s 1969 movie, “2001 – A Space Oddyssey”. Dr. Chandra tells SAL to create a new file called “Phoenix”. “Do you know what it means?” he asks SAL. “A fabulous bird, born out of the ashes from its former life.” she answers.