BBC World Service launched the User Needs Model for News five years ago. They’ve been joined by other notable players in the media like Vogue, Wall Street Journal and Vox. Has the model itself changed over time? We asked Dmitry Shishkin, evangeliser of the approach at the BBC and now its most vocal advocate.

UPDATE: We created a new User Need Model in March 2023. Check our page and download the whitepaper if you're interested. Or get started right away.

Journalists all over the world now use user needs to find the right angle for their next story. User needs go beyond just getting the facts, and stem from basic human desires: understanding the world around you, being able to join in on the conversation, share information with others, and determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong.

After user research, growth hacks and constant iteration, the BBC found six different reasons why people consume news:

  • Update me
  • Keep me on trend
  • Give me perspective
  • Educate me
  • Inspire me
  • Divert me

But the model is not set in stone. Shishkin is the first to admit that constant reformation is needed, especially when circumstances change. “It is gratifying and fulfilling to see the birth of so many different models across the world. That means people are reacting to this concept well - and taking it seriously. They go to great lengths to collaborate with their internal stakeholders, like the audience development team or product people to find their own set of needs. This is an amazing cultural change, happening in front of our eyes.”

When would you say that a newsroom tends to adopt the model?

There are several layers of the adoption process, of course. That goes from thinking solely about creating pieces in a different way, to creating a full blown unique model and integrating it into the content management and editorial analytics systems. When user needs for news become part of the workflow when you’re creating a story, it takes a different type of commitment. The ones using the model from start to finish certainly are most effective.

That feels like a big leap.

Of course you need to start somewhere. Change can be painful and uncomfortable. If you’re saying: this is how we’re going to do it for everyone from now on, there will be a lot of scepticism. But if you do a couple of individual experiments, it could be easier to track. Change the behaviour from agent to agent.

Before you can do that, you need to analyse your own newsroom. The truth is that a lot of what you’re outputting is a waste of time. You need to find where the value is to be brought. What’s working and what’s not? Take a dive in your editorial analytics tool to find the answer to that question. After that, you need to come up with a hypothesis. You’ll always find what you could change on a level of individual sections, not for a website as a whole. Perhaps on certain levels you need to apply ‘educate me’ or ‘inspire me’. In the economy section you may need to do something else.It will be purely dependent on the niche you occupy and your product-market fit.

We did a webinar about the User Needs Model 2.0. Watch the recording!

What do you think about newsrooms adapting the original model?

I’m all for it. I’ve seen models created from scratch, I’ve seen versions of the BBC model renamed. I’ve seen some differences between local products and regional products and international products. The user needs model always reflects that situation. There are two specific needs that the original BBC model didn’t have. ‘Help me connect with the area I belong to’ is a really important user need, especially on local and regional leves. And something that’s been happening with a wave of constructive journalism or solution based journalism is ‘help me navigate my life better’, you know, those kinds of things.

These are super important user needs. We’ve seen in five years the expansion of that thinking. At the same time, things are shifting on a more niche level. A good example is Vox, the US website whose mission is to help users ‘understand the news’. By default everything they do falls under the category of ‘educate me’ or ‘give me perspective’, but what they’ve done is develop their own subsets of user needs of those two master user needs. They understand their product market fit so, so well.

It’s very refreshing to see organisations leaving all their legacy thinking behind and focus on maybe three user needs that are going to help differentiate them from others. I love that approach.

Portrait of Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry Shishkin media consultant

Would you say this is the evolution of the model or the execution of the model?

Well, any execution always comes with improvements. Nothing goes from A to Z in one go. You go from A to B, from B to C and so on. But frankly the BBC model is so universal, it’s applicable to 80% of all cases. The icing on the cake is being able to find that 20% that are very relevant to your specific users’ needs.

For me it’s execution first, because you actually need to start with something, and then you start innovating and iterating, specifically for your own audience.

So the way evolution is taking place is just how it’s supposed to be?

It needs constant change. We will see the continuation of innovation to niche user needs. For big international players, you’ll probably need an all-encompassing strategy because you will have so many cohorts of people who will be interested in different types of user needs anyway.

The question here is: do you understand why you exist in the market? If you have a media organisation that is not able to compete in speed for example, ‘update me’ is not your unique selling point. It’s very refreshing to see organisations leaving all their legacy thinking behind and focus on maybe three user needs that are going to help differentiate them from others. I love that approach.

Is there a specific user need developed by some newsroom that you were inspired by? For example Vogue found out their audience had the need to feel responsible as fashion consumers.

For me that’s a subset of the wider user need ‘motivate me’, which was not in the original model, but is really about constructive or solution based journalism: ‘help me do something about what I just read’. For example: five things you can do to spend less on heating. It satisfies a person's need to change something in their behaviour and that’s amazing.

Have you been surprised by anything that people have come up with?

Well, I’ve been doing user needs for quite some time. It’s hard to be surprised. But I really like local user cases like ‘help me feel connected to the area where I live’. I live in Wimbledon in London and normally a local paper writes mainly about local crime and accidents or national events. However, if they were to regularly right about the neighbourhood itslf, its history, its people, I’d willingly share such pieces far and wide. My area in Wimbledon is Australias (lots of streets are names after places in Australia), so a feature about it would be great. I would love to read more about that. Similarly, why is this roundabout named like that? What does the name of that square mean exactly? I want to feel like I’m part of this local community. There is definitely a user need there.

Around the globe there’s been an increase of polarisation in public debate. Does that change the user needs in your opinion?

“First of all you need to understand where you are in the market. Don’t generalise. Every newsroom needs to do their job. Take BBC News Russian as an example. When we were analysing BBC Russian’s performance in 2016, the Russian market was saturated by quality news providers that were better funded, so their ability to create ‘update me’ articles was much stronger. BBC Russian didn't need to do that in the quantities they had been doing it. When we returned recently to analyse their traffic five years later, however the situation was totally different. The Russian market of free media is completely obliterated domestically. So suddenly now people who are visiting BBC Russian are interested in ‘update me’ articles a lot. Because the situation changed, the interest of the audience in specific user needs changed too.”

Sounds like it is a good idea to check your user needs strategy once a year, then?

“You don’t need to change it every year. With editorial analytics tools like smartocto you could automate the reporting on user needs for example. That’s why I’m so excited about The Quadrant Model of Content Optimisation that is now available. It’s a little bit like… if you’re talking to your direct report 26 times a year, then your annual performance review isn’t so stressful anymore. It’s just yet another conversation that you’re having with your boss.

If you’re getting regular feedback on your user needs, on what’s working and what’s not working, editors will be responsible for reacting to those changes. They will say: what if we introduce ‘help me plan my life better’ for a month and see that the performance is better than all the stories previously.

You need to start with something, you need to absolutely connect that strategy with a measurement. Measure what you want to measure, whether it’s engagement or reach or conversions. And then you start fine tuning it. It will be a native process. You don’t need to say: we’ll introduce it once and we’ll measure it once a year. You can measure year on year changes, but it needs to be part of your normal work life.”