Virtual product trials improve Globe and Mail’s product development

By Garth Thomas

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


A successful publisher must provide people with excellent journalism as well as offer a top-notch user experience. During the pandemic, The Globe and Mail has continued to test and enhance its digital offerings to make them even better for our readers, who are accessing our content in increasing numbers.

I spoke with Mike Pletch (director of product and user experience [UX]) and Colleen Wheeler (product manager) about how COVID-19 has improved The Globe and Mail’s process for product development.

COVID-19 has helped The Globe evolve its product development strategies.
COVID-19 has helped The Globe evolve its product development strategies.

Q: To get us on the same page, what do we mean by product development?

Pletch: It refers to looking at The Globe’s overall digital experience on our Web site and app to create an experience that allows the business to achieve its objectives while also satisfying the needs of our customers. We’re continually evolving that experience and building new features and functionality. We gather information from our internal stakeholders regarding what they need for success and from our readers to understand what works and what doesn’t for their needs.

Wheeler: We try to be problem-focused as opposed to solutions-focused. Rather than assuming we know the answers and jumping straight into implementation, we validate our assumptions through discovery and collecting feedback to ensure we’re building features our readers want and need. It’s a shift in mindset from “Let’s build X” to “What problems do our readers have and how can we build features to fix them?”

Q: Were there any changes to the product development teams to cope with the pandemic?

Pletch: Although not specifically a result of COVID, we made a change to our work structure that affected product development. Previously, we had a separate UX team that would focus on customer needs. We’ve now integrated the roles into specific product teams to ensure the people who are experts on customer needs are working in tandem with the product managers, who know the business priorities, and the developers.

All three roles work together to design, build, and deliver solutions. This means that we can now have multiple teams gathering customer data on their specific projects and undertake more customer interviews.

Q: What was our process in gathering reader feedback before the pandemic?

Pletch: We used to bring people physically into our office and sit down with them at a computer to watch them interact with our products. It was useful to have one-on-one interviews with readers and gather their ideas.

Quarantine and lockdowns meant that in-person interviews were no longer feasible, so we very quickly turned to video calls. It’s working much better than our in-person interviews.

Q: What are the benefits to video call interviews for product development?

Pletch: First, there’s less of a time commitment and effort for our respondents. They can log on from wherever they are, and they don’t spend time or money travelling to our office or a central location like a coffee shop. Our readers share their screens, allowing us to watch how they navigate our site and app, and we can demonstrate prototypes for their feedback.

The data we gather from video calls is richer. We did one interview with a doctor while they were at work and we could visually see how they used our products in their everyday life, which isn’t information we could have collected had they come to the office.

We can also pull from all of Canada, as opposed to the geographic area near the office. This means we can ask more targeted regional questions to understand those readers and their needs better.

Q: What didn’t change?

Wheeler: We didn’t have to change anything we already did online pre-COVID. We still do A/B testing with our products and survey customers through Globe Insiders, our customer intelligence panel comprising more than 4,500 Globe readers.

Q: Are there specific tools that have helped the transition?

Wheeler: Yes, a few to make virtual collaboration and brainstorming possible. The learning curve on some was a bit high, but it was worth it to have all our work in the cloud for everyone to access easily and already in a digital format (rather than having to transcribe notes). The pandemic has increased everyone’s comfort with online tools.

  • Miro: Whiteboarding/brainstorming.
  • Figma: Prototyping and design.
  • Calendly: Booking interviews and meetings by sending available slots for the invitee to choose.

Q: What do you think will change post-COVID?

Pletch: Right now, the advantages of video interviews outweigh those of bringing people into the office. What we do know is that product development will continue to get more customer-focused and that COVID has accelerated that trend.

About Garth Thomas

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