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UX Conversations with Frederik Hjelmqwist

27 Jan

– UX designers have a big responsibility, and it’s important that our expertise reaches higher up the corporate hierarchy, says Frederik Hjelmqwist, UX Lead at Aftonbladet – Sweden’s largest digital newspaper. This is the thirteenth in a series of interviews with UX experts, practitioners and leaders.

Can you tell us a little about your UX process, what UX methods you use and how?

– UX is a lot about being a gatekeeper, where I as a UX designer may not have all the answers to how to get the best user experience. However, it’s my job and my responsibility as a UX designer to recognize and create the right conditions for good ideas; to make way for good ideas and redirect the not-so-appropriate ones. We try to work according to the motto, “Design is not a department, it’s a behavior.” Why we do something, whom we do it for and in what context something is in is a three-fold paradigm that everyone at Aftonbladet should always have in mind. When it comes to news, and understanding what type of content attracts readers, we have Sweden’s finest. Our editors know exactly how to draw attention to a story, and our amazing reporters always try to find the best angle to create a story as interesting as possible for the reader. That’s great UX; trying to meet, and even exceed, the reader’s expectations and needs for news and storytelling. 

– At Aftonbladet, UX designers are generally involved in the creative process together with other stakeholders when we develop a new product. We often begin by setting clearly-defined, measurable goals for what we want to achieve with a new product or a product improvement. We then try to identify what problems we must address in order to find the best way forward. When we have a well-defined problem, we try to be as open as possible as to how to best achieve the desired effects.

– However, this approach to problem solving can be quite challenging in a news culture, where the player who publishes first often takes all. People here are used to jumping on the task, trying to solve every problem as fast as possible, to break the story before anyone else does. Instead, this approach to problem solving requires defining problems instead of solving them. This is something that at a first glance would seem to take up unnecessary time, but in practice usually you gets you to a result faster, and hopefully a better one at that. Often, many good solutions come naturally if you have a good enough understanding of the problem. Once we have a possible solution, we usually want to prototype it to test it on users right away. If there are not enough people visiting our reception at the moment, we run down to The Central Train Station nearby to ask people if they want to take a stab at our latest invention.

Working at a newspaper in 2014 must be exciting– a tough market, and a large number of stakeholders with partly diverging interests: journalists, marketing, management, owners, readers and so on. What status would you say have working with UX at Aftonbladet in relation to other strong stakeholders? Do you have any friends in the lunchroom?

– It’s super fun to work at Aftonbladet, because people dare to go the whole hog. I think that’s a big reason for Aftonbladet’s success. Responsibility isn’t always given here; you have to take it. Talents tend to thrive in such an environment and get really good at their areas of expertise. But sometimes there’s no one who keeps an eye on the big picture, someone who asks why should we try this next hot idea. 

– We’ve published newspapers for over 180 years and have become very good at it, but now that digital channels have overtaken print, the game plan has completely changed. Therefore, usually workers appreciate UX designers trying to help them understand the new conditions as well as our users’ expectations. UX designers have a big responsibility, and it’s important that our expertise reaches higher up the corporate hierarchy, where our expertise is needed more than ever, now that the power has shifted from the boardrooms to the users.

“It’s important that UX designers’ expertise reaches higher up the corporate hierarchy.” 

Aftonbladet is Sweden’s fourth largest website in terms of number of visitors, just behind Google, Facebook and Youtube. In an international comparison, this is exceptionally positive for print media gone digital. In the United States, Germany and the UK, none of the printed papers have even managed to enter the top ten. To what extent do you think your UX work has contributed to this success?

– Aftonbladet was early to focus on digital channels, which gave us a huge head start. Few other countries have tabloid sites that look like they do in Sweden. Aftonbladet has undoubtedly been trendsetting in that sense. We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty and dare to challenge conventions in order to test the limits, for good or for worse. This has been important in helping us grow quickly and weather stormy times, and it given us the opportunity to capitalize on channels that have been proven to be very difficult to monetise. 

– But we are not alone anymore. We compete not only with other newspapers in Sweden, but also with each individual writer and blogger who writes about something that we write about. Users no longer need to choose a single source for all news, they choose the one that offers the best coverage for each topic they are interested in. 

– We must find new success factors, in addition to understanding the composition of content that appeals to our readers. We need to understand both why users choose what they choose and what are their expectations. For instance, about a year and a half ago when we launched our current mobile site, we set our aim to have the world’s fastest news site. Almost every part of our site was evaluated on the basis of how it affects the site’s load speed, for example, editors had to learn to compress the images properly to minimize load times. 

– The result was striking, we increased the number of page views per visit from 3.6 to 4.8 views per visit immediately. It was not just the speed that accounted for the increase, but it definitely played an important part. Understanding what benefits users will be increasingly important in order to maintain our leading position in the future.

What is the big challenge from a UX perspective for Aftonbladet and other digital newspapers the next five to ten years, would you say?

– Understanding success factors online and the new conditions of today. Why do people change their behaviour and what new expectations do these behavioural changes entail. 

– The main part of our content is still written text and images, the same as in the printed newspaper. People did not start using computers and go online just to experience text and images in a better way. They took new steps expecting to experience new things. We are still very much stuck in working with traditional media products presented in new channels. In some cases it provides a very good experience, but in others it does not. 

– I think the big challenge is to find ways that give users a better experience of both editorial and commercial content. Users are getting tired of having large, often irrelevant, advertising campaigns thrown in their faces when they try to visit our site. We should treat them with much bigger respect and nurture our relationship with them. After all, our faith and future lies in their hands. Users will always choose the alternative that best suits their needs and preferences - why we must ensure that both the best and the most convenient way for them to get news is through us. UX designers have a responsibility to understand human behaviour and creating solutions which promote them. But simultaneously we have a responsibility to understand how we can make money without violating user value and experience. Could it even be there are ways to capitalize on meeting user needs with great experiences?

By Christian Dahlström