How The New York Times is incorporating design into audience research

The New York Times building in New York

The pressure to anticipate an audience’s needs and desires is intense—no longer only of concern to business sides of media organizations but a part of the editorial mission. As former CJR Editor and Publisher Liz Spayd wrote for her first column as The New York Times Public Editor, insight into readership is crucial, especially for the Times, which has “hitched its future to building a loyal audience that will come back repeatedly and pay for the privilege of doing so.” If the Times wants to continue to build revenue, it will have to listen to what readers want, she argues.

But how? So far, newsrooms have relied on analytics and data to glean information about readers. While writing my new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a Guide to Journalism and Design, I found that certain newsrooms, including the Times’s, are turning to human-centered design practices in order to compete in the digital environment. This shouldn’t be surprising, since so-called “design thinking” grew out of attempts by public policy and artificial intelligence communities in the 1960s and ’70s to grapple with complex problems for which there were no known solutions. Design practices are excellent strategies when you’re operating in unknown, or even unknowable, environments—such as journalism at this moment in time.

When Spayd and others talk about gaining insight into readers, they are recognizing what is generally the first step of any design process: don’t make anything until you know who you’re making it for and why. For the Tow report, I spoke to Emily Goligoski, user experience research lead for the Consumer Insight Group at the Times. We talked about why design research belongs in the newsroom and her efforts to get a more holistic view of readers using a human-centered design approach. Goligoski’s work is meant to complement other modes of research at the Times, such as data analytics and syndicated tools like comScore. What’s unusual about Goligoski’s role is that she conducts her work directly alongside editorial. “It’s really first of all to help them understand who their audiences are,” Goligoski said. “If you’re not doing audience research, you risk just taking shots in the dark.”

If you’re not doing audience research, you risk just taking shots in the dark.

 

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In 2014, Alex McCallum, then assistant managing editor for outreach (a new title at the time), began embedding quantitative and qualitative audience researchers in its newsrooms to work directly with editors and reporters. Goligoski, whose background is in both journalism and design, was the first design researcher to go into the newsrooms, in the spring of 2015. Two editors approached Goligoski with a basic question: What can we learn about what people need in breaking news moments?

Goligoski came to the problem as a designer. First, to define the question, she scheduled a series of informal lunches with people across the newsroom involved with breaking news. Each lunch was an hour long and attended by 10 to 15 people. Goligoski acted as facilitator. “We were trying to understand what constitutes a breaking news win,” she said. “What’s an example of us or a competitor really meeting someone’s information needs in those moments?” As a result of what she heard there, Goligoski framed her project with three questions: What do readers seek most in breaking news moments? What role do devices play in shaping their news gathering decisions? How important is social media as a news discovery mechanism?

After gathering information inside the newsroom, Goligoski did the same outside it. She worked with other consumer insights staff to find 15 Times users representing different levels of engagement, from the casual user to dedicated readers. Some of the recruits spent hours a day on NYTimes.com; others hadn’t read the Times since the Boston Marathon bombing. Goligoski’s team also selected across socioeconomic, racial, and professional lines.

Goligoski did not ask recruits to participate in a focus group; she argues that these “encourage groupthink” and give undue prominence to the most outspoken. Goligoski advocates one-on-one work and more time spent understanding the context of a person’s life. This is a key principle of human-centered design, which advocates that users be understood as full humans with full lives, not just consumers. It addresses the ever-present need to consider the larger system in which a person exists and will use your product.

For this project, she gave each of her recruits access to an online dashboard to record their media interactions throughout the day, as well as how they felt about those interactions and whether they shared what they consumed. She also encouraged recruits to take snapshots of what they were viewing whenever possible and had them keep diaries of their experiences over the week. The dashboard and diary are a way to see what people actually do, rather than just what they wish they were doing. After seven days, Goligoski set up interviews with each person, in their own homes when she could arrange it; she learns more seeing people in their living rooms than in a Times conference room, she said.

Goligoski’s interviews are at least 60 minutes each. “I’m not listening for sound bites,” Goligoski said, but for meaning and context. After listening to the interviews, Goligoski and her team spent another week analyzing and synthesizing their findings. “Basically, we lock ourselves in a room and Post-it like crazy,” she said. “What you’re looking for are patterns and surprises.” Like other designers, Goligoski relies heavily on visual tools in her work. The team put up portraits of the people with whom they’d spoken, alongside the images people took of themselves and the media they’d consumed over the week. This too, she said, helps her identify with her subjects and gain a richer understanding of them as individuals. On a more prosaic level, visuals can be extremely useful tools of communication in team environments.

Some of what Goligoski found in the breaking news project was in line with what the data analytics team had already suggested: People are on their computers during the day, their tablets on weekends, radio during commutes, cable TV at night, and mobile all the time.

There were also surprises, however. For example, if people didn’t catch a story when it broke, they didn’t care about new developments until it took up so much space in their social media channels that they felt a sense of personal responsibility to catch up. Then, when that moment came, a surprising number turned to Wikipedia. Another finding that emerged was that people were annoyed by alerts. “The volume is too high, and lot of them are irrelevant to what people want,” Goligoski said.

Goligoski’s presentation is still making the rounds at the Times, so it’s hard to give a firm statement on the impact of her research so far. But, she said, the research is being used to further understand reader needs regarding SMS alerts, mobile live-blogging, and news personalization.

To be on the editorial side and not think about business considerations, that feels like a dated approach to me.

 

I asked Goligoski if this sort of design work is essentially a business function, or if it actually makes for better journalism. “To be on the editorial side and not think about business considerations, that feels like a dated approach to me,” Goligoski said. “I think design and design thinking are tools we have to best meet readers where they’re at. And given how competitive things are right now, why wouldn’t you employ that?”

This attitude raises the hackles of some journalists. The breakdown of the so-called Chinese wall between editorial and business is a controversial topic. Since the 1920s, when the industry began to develop a code of ethics—and had successfully moved away from a model of political allegiance to one of advertiser support—a complete separation of business and editorial has been seen as a priority. But since the collapse of the print business model, many have begun to wonder if this insistence is counterproductive. Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, suggested that the division between editorial and business should be a “picket fence” rather than a wall. “You can talk over the picket fence. If there’s a gate, you can go back and forth,” he said.

The question, of course, is whether can you turn a wall into a picket fence without sacrificing, consciously or unconsciously, editorial staff’s capacity to remain uninfluenced by business interests. This is not to imply that reporters shouldn’t care if their news organizations survive —presumably, they do—but rather that they should not be making decisions about what to cover, or not cover, based on financial considerations. I asked Goligoski if she worried that ideas generated in consumer insights might unduly affect the work of editorial:

It’s delicate, because we should never get in the way of editorial judgment. I will make recommendations around, say, “opportunities on mobile alerts to do X, Y or Z.” But I really try to avoid being prescriptive. My worst nightmare ever would be that we didn’t cover something editorially valuable because we didn’t think it would be financially valuable.

Goligoski suggested it was more useful to think of her work as akin to that done in an R&D lab. “It’s finding out if there’s a hunger,” she said. And to know what people need, she said, you have to look at them as whole people, and you have to listen.

Read more about how newsrooms are incorporating design in Heather Chaplin’s new report, Guide to Journalism and Design, at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

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Heather Chaplin is founding director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School.