At MIT, I’ve become increasingly interested in the expanding intersection between the worlds of design and journalism. As news organizations increase their focus on apps and mobile editions, the newsroom designer has become a key figure in the initial planning stages of many ambitious new projects. Design also drives an increasing number of journalism startups. Some media entrepreneurs – like Jake Shapiro at MIT’s recent New Reality conference – have suggested journalists should study design principles as part of their training.
At the recent Harvard xDesign conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with Farah Assir, an interaction designer at the New York Times, to get her perspective on these and other questions in the journalism + design world. I also asked her what it’s been like to work on one of the most-watched products of the year: the New York Times’ news-focused mobile app NYT Now.
ANIKA: As a designer, what attracted you to working with the NYT?
FARAH: The thing that attracted me to NYT Now was watching how the younger generation wasn’t interested in reading, but was interested in skimming things. I thought NYT Now was a gateway into that.
ANIKA: NYT Now and NYT Opinion were launched earlier this year, and now they’re going through some changes. What design lessons do you think you’ve learned from the initial stage of these news apps?
FARAH: The business model and research were handed down to us without exploring the actual new problem we were trying to solve. The very first iteration of NYT Now was a result of creating something that we knew worked, based off the core newspaper but in digital form. That wasn’t what people wanted on their phones. Once we started to identify [users’] real needs and build on their habits, that’s when it stated to catch on and get sticky.
ANIKA: Can you give me an example of that learning process? What are specific features you added, or ways you had to adjust your approach?
FARAH: So we identified people’s habits throughout a day. We looked at: what do you need in the morning? People need an overview. So we built features around helping people get out the door in the morning, like the morning briefing. At lunch people want something good to read, so we put in this thing called the lunchtime read. Every day around noon our editors would put up a shorter nice feature read. We used to put it up all the time but then one day we had the idea of labeling it: your lunchtime read. Once we added that label the traffic shot up on it. It was basically just because we gave people more mission, “here’s the thing you get to read around lunch.”
[We formatted] the app to constantly tell you over the day what’s changed. Every time you go to it, you should understand what’s new since the last time you checked in, and that was very specific to the format. If you think about the way you use your phone, versus a [news]paper or something on the desktop, on your phone you’re checking in more often. [An app] will show you what’s new for you, and a layer on top of that is what has changed for the individual user. Obviously a lot of social networks on your phone do that, but for the Times that’s a new way of presenting the news. It’s not about our publishing cycle, it’s about what the user has seen or not seen.
ANIKA: Are there any best practices you’ve discovered for news apps?
FARAH: We started framing things differently. Our editor calls them grace notes: the way we say good morning or good evening. [It’s] speaking to the user as a human, versus a feed of news coming out of our algorithms. This voice developed with the app.
Telling people what’s changed is huge as well, because it changed a lot of our editors’ and journalists’ behavior. They would watch the analytics like crazy and they had access to people’s reactions, and it was more of a conversation.
ANIKA: Why should newsrooms have designers and how can they use them best?
FARAH: We came to this tension at the very beginning when it was me and one editor trying to show people what our next step would be. My editor was like “design it so I can write into the box” and I was like “write it so I can design”. We didn’t have common language or understanding so we started to draw everything [we] were talking about. It wasn’t enough to be like “this is a header.” Every time we introduced a new word, until we were sure, we had to use pictures. That highlighted a unique role of the designer – to bring everyone together.
The designer said ‘it looks like this’ – whatever form that takes: a prototype, a video, a sketch, whatever it [took] to get everything out of everyone’s heads and synthesize it.
ANIKA: It seems like you’re suggesting a world in which teams of journalists wireframe stories, instead of just outlining them?
FARAH: Yes, exactly. We were in rooms full of whiteboards. I would explain complex architecture of the app in very simple drawings. When you’re with other designers, everyone has the same tools generally. But when talking to an editor or a developer, it’s more about building a relationship and creating a thing together.
ANIKA: What are some of the challenges of working with a legacy like that of the New York Times?
FARAH: For me the reward of working there was that the day we launched this app, so many people downloaded it, so many people saw it, it got so much exposure. As a designer that’s really thrilling. It’s also the disadvantage, because along the way, every tweak and every adjustment to the established way of doing things was a battle. Everything that I thought was really small was “that’s not how we do things”. Although people were open to new things, the important thing I learned to do was to go back to user testing. Do tiny experiments that you know [are] a good user experience, and bring people in to use the experiment and make sure that everyone from the team – especially the key decision makers – are in the room to witness that. Bring the user in and show [the NYT team] their work in real time.
For example, the homepage is very much ranked, all the stories are in ranked order and everything is in a specific place. But users are used to reverse chronology. We pushed the Times to understand that our editorial judgment is important, but the user need on top of that is [also] important.
Initially I was like let’s change everything and that did not go over well. We’re associated with this [legacy] but we also need to form a new identity, and there’s competition. Just figuring out the identity of the app – we had a lot of trouble naming it. We were trying to figure out if NYT was enough to tie back to the brand, but also still be a new thing. On the Internet everyone uses [the acronym NYT] as shorthand but we couldn’t figure out if that was a good thing.
ANIKA: Are there any news products out there whose design you really admire?
FARAH: I really like the new Qz.com redesign. They do this daily briefing as well. One of the challenges is being tied to the article as the atomic unit, and they’ve done this smart thing where they unpack their daily briefing as one long feed/experience on the front page.
Circa has challenged that idea really well –the idea of the atomic unit of the article – in the way they’ve tried to break everything up in a way that makes sense for mobile. The architecture is really well done.
Facebook’s Paper app tried to do something interesting. The challenge is that a lot of people are really good at the tech stuff, and then some people are really good at the content part. The intersection we’re exploring [at NYT] is people with good content who can build good tech to fit that. Paper had this awesome platform but the content in it – at the end of the day that’s what powers it – they have no control over the quality of that.
ANIKA: So what do you think? Should journalists study design?
FARAH: Design is such a – it’s been so abused and I think there are a lot of misconceptions around what the role of a designer is. That thing we talked about earlier with helping people see what’s possible, if that’s what design is, then everyone should do that.
If you are trying to unite a lot of people around a certain idea or concept you have to be able to visualize that and help them see it the way you do. An editor just writing something out is not enough anymore because we can only picture what we know. So for that reason I agree everyone should learn about the tools.
Another part of [design] is this [type of] empathy. Putting yourself in place of the user. That’s traditionally not built into journalists because they never see people using their product when it’s a newspaper. Unless they see people on the subway reading it, they won’t see people using it or struggling with it.