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UX Conversations with Barbara deWilde

16 Dec

– UX is a core value that must reach the user at every point of their interaction with The Times, says Barbara deWilde, masterful UX strategist and designer at The New York Times. This is the twelfth in a series of interviews with UX experts, practitioners and leaders.

You have worked in publishing for nearly twenty years. Would you say that the digital revolution, with more competition and perhaps less patient consumers, has led to increased focus on UX in publishing, or has it always been a priority? 

– My experience in publishing cuts across book publishing, primarily long-form literary fiction and nonfiction, magazine publishing, and now news – hard and soft – and editorial opinion writing. It is striking how differently these segments have responded to the digital revolution. To generalize, Knopf, which is part of Penguin Random House, did not see much advantage to the early exploration of digital publishing as part of their strategy. The concept of experience design and reading was not part of any conversation about the books we were publishing. I remember reading an ebook from our company and coming to the page that was meant to divide the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. On the page was the following text: “This page intentionally left blank.” I’ve saved that page as a constant reminder of the poor UX that still exists in long form publishing. Making the reading experience as lovely when it is digital as it is when it is physical should at this point be table stakes. The physics of the screen, digital typography, workflow and production capabilities make beautiful reading experiences possible, but is it a core value?

– At The Times, I am part of a very large team of digital designers led by Ian Adelman. Creating the best reading experiences and enabling journalistic intent has led to a primary focus on User Experience. Which is not to say that The Times is perfect. The recently leaked Innovation Report testifies to the extent to which this is true. However, the response to the report shows that UX is a core value that must reach the user at every point of their interaction with The Times, as well as in the newsroom, and in business strategy. There is a new focus company wide, so expect to see a lot of positive change across the board.

– Whether a company adopts a digital strategy can be a factor of time and content as well as consumer behavior. The Times needs to be fast and constant. This publication needs to respond to predictable news events like The World Cup and unpredictable events like the Boston bombings. It needs to be a great reading experience for folks who consume the print paper daily and others – nearly 46 percent – who only read digitally. It needs to be so versatile and through technology and UX that we can deliver on both. News consumers have an abundance of choice, so experience can be a differentiator. Book publishers have a tendency toward the hit or miss business model with less focus on time. The income from best sellers float the less lucrative literary works with smaller audiences. With added production cost-cutting, this strategy has worked for decades. Without the same imperatives to change and keep pace, I wonder when the large book publishers will ever adopt UX as priority.

“UX is a core value that must reach the user at every point of their interaction with @nytimes”  

You currently work as a UX Strategist at The New York Times. What UX methodologies and tools are the most important/useful in your work today? 

– Right now I’m pretty jazzed about modeling user journeys through different content types. What does the reader experience as they are reading an opinion piece as opposed to a news update? What are their goals and are we meeting them. The Times has so much content, far more than news. For example, the new products team just launched a wonderful food data base “Cooking.” There are extraordinary videos, remarkably entertaining movie reviews, street fashion, it’s endless. People come to The Times looking for all sorts of information and it’s really mind-boggling. They come for multiple reasons, with multiple goals, at every point of the day. Drawing experience maps of their routines has been incredibly informative for future design ideations. We do a lot of quick design sprints followed by user testing. I am very happy to work at a company that values research.

The newspaper industry is struggling with declining revenues. The million-dollar question seems to be how to make the transition in terms of revenue from physical newspapers to digital news products. Even if The New York Times also has suffered from declining revenues in recent years, you have nearly a million paying subscribers to your digital-only products, making you one of the most successful newspapers in the world in that sense. How important do you think your UX work has been to achieve that amount of success? 

– I think the best answer might be an example. In 2013 The Times formed a New Digital Products group with the goal of launching new revenue-generating digital products. The products were to be focused on slices of the news report: top stories, the opinion report, and the dining section. Small teams were formed comprised of a designer, an editor, a business lead, marketing lead, and technologists. Over the year the teams launched NYTnow, NYT Opinion, and NYT Cooking. Each new product were initially envisioned as paid product subscriptions, but over the course of the various launches, the pricing models and business goals changed from subscription growth to audience development and extension. The result as stated by Alex MacCallum, head of Audience Development, “Last month 64 million visitors read our journalism on our website and apps, topping our previous best month by more than 10 million visitors, according to comScore multi-platform numbers. More important, our readers didn’t just show up. They stayed – twice as long on average as at The Washington Post, three times as long as at The Wall Street Journal and almost five times as long as at The Guardian.” There may not be one answer to the million dollar news question, but many. But ultimately, wouldn’t it be great if by offering informative, world-class journalism and responsive user experience The Times could monetize without ever charging for subscriptions?

If you were to name some of the challenges of the coming years (briefly) for The New York Times and other newspapers when it comes to UX, what would they be? 

– There are so many challenges, but I think the question I like to focus on is this: How do you create and deliver a rich and mature news experience for one type of consumer, but also a faster and more social news experience for another? I think about my own relationship with the newspaper. When I was twenty I could have cared less about reading The New York Times. I discovered the paper in my thirties. I read it on the subway. About 15 years ago, I began subscribing to the print edition. I read it on the suburban train. Now I can’t get through the day without it. I read it in print in the morning and digitally throughout the day. I have my favorite writers, beats, topics. David Carr said something to this effect: “The Times is the most fun you can have for two bucks.” I agree. So the question of evolving in divergent directions is a great challenge and I’d like to think design will help answer that challenge.

By Christian Dahlström