We built listen.ft.com, a rather lovely subscriber-only podcast player of audio articles, in the form of a progressive web app. It was a prototype but it worked well, and tapped into an oft-stated need.
As of 25 Jan 2018, the app was shutdown. Perhaps it, or something like it, might return?
What was the problem?
Part of FT Labs’ remit is to engage with the business development team to explore new, interesting ways to enhance the FT’s offering to our readers.
Over the last few months, we’ve been exploring offering audio versions of FT content to subscribers – the newspaper in podcast form, if you will. Initially, this took the form of inserting an audio player with a spoken word version of the content into the corresponding article page, which is great at trying to gauge the interest of readers in this kind of content, but it’s very MVP.
There are better ways to consume audio content.
So what did we do about it?
With quite a few audio articles available, we took on the challenge to make listening to the FT both easy, and a joy. Our solution was a progressive web app, listen.ft.com (for subscribers only).
A progressive web app, is a web page like any other, except that it’s been _progressively_ enhanced to take advantage of the latest web APIs and capabilities. This tends to mean that it can do a little bit more than a typical web page (approaching what would previously have required installed an app from the app store), but it will also fall back to older, better supported web technologies for browsers *cough* Mobile Safari *cough*.
The particular ability we were after for this project was for it to work offline, since trains do go through tunnels.
Also, if used frequently, the listen.ft.com page can be installed to an (Android) user’s home screen.
Which FT content can I listen to?
We aren’t (yet) making the entirety of the FT’s content available in audio form. Creating human-read audio versions of a written article is a time-consuming (and expensive) process, and we produce ~300 articles a day! Not only are we unable to produce that volume, we don’t think many people will be able to consume that volume, either.
As such, content that will be available on listen.ft.com will most likely either be long-form or ‘evergreen’ content. These pieces represent some of the best of FT content and insights, so we want to put it in front of as many people in as many ways as possible.
As the number of audio articles increases, myFT will give the user control over which topics should appear in the listen app.
Can’t I just listen to Podcasts?
Consuming content through audio isn’t especially new – podcasts are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and the ecosystem work really well, but they’re an awkward proposition for a business that deals in selling its content. Releasing a news article into the world in a podcast format means exposing it from behind our paywall, and destroying any ability we have to control (and track) how widely that news piece is consumed.
As a prototype, we have not attempted to create the definitive audio player – it is clear a great deal more UX-thinking is needed. That said, it is lovely (and you can select the play speed of the audio – our one concession to feature creep).
Longer term, we will be tackling more, much richer, voice-mediated interactions with FT.com, and listen.ft.com gives us a good platform on which to work.
Technical difficulties experienced along the way
(which may be worthy of followup posts)
- Keeping the audio behind a paywall, so not simply exposing the audio as a podcast feed, but also making the whole experience frictionless
- Working offline
- Knowing when online was in fact offline
- Tracking user interactions when offline (e.g. which articles are played all the way through)
- Making it work on an iphone browser (the new IE6)
- Navigating the challenging documentation on Service Workers