Woeful, what the hell are you thinking. 1/10.” “It is dreadful, I feel like I need to wear sunglasses when I am looking at it.” And so it went on.

Anyone who has lived through a news Web site refresh, redesign, or relaunch will tell you it’s a bruising encounter. As much as the digital world is an ever-changing environment, digital audiences are highly resistant to change. There’s a reason Google still looks the same. Most of the change goes on under the hood.

At the Herald Sun, we had little choice but to change the world for our readers and advertisers this month. In our case, things were misfiring below the surface and above.

No Web site relaunch is easy. Herald Sun started the difficult process by listening.
No Web site relaunch is easy. Herald Sun started the difficult process by listening.

Our page speeds were well behind industry best. Our navigation was clunky and didn’t easily surface the sections popular with our readers. Ad units weren’t consistent across our News Corp network. And a nagging issue for our newsroom and — as we discovered — our readers was that our journalism wasn’t being afforded a decent layout to deliver the gravitas it warranted.

The design, navigation, and structure were painful for us all. Over time we had all just found a way to live with it. Given these issues, a rapid series of iterative updates wouldn’t be the answer.

So it was relaunch time — an opportunity to not only put a bunch of better building blocks in place for faster improvements down the line but an entire lick of paint.

Despite the blunt feedback from some quarters, as expected, something interesting happened. Our newsroom was energised by the fresh look and greater prominence offered to individual stories. “Getting a good run” is still a huge motivator for journalists. And our audience numbers went up from day one.

Having been through a few relaunches, this was welcomed, but highly unusual. While it’s too early to be overly excited as we face slow news cycle headwinds, it’s a promising start to a long journey.

The steps of how we got here were important.

First, we listened. To better understand our customers’ pain points, we conducted our biggest ever on-site survey for readers to tell us what they wanted, collated that feedback, and used it to drive our decisions. We also talked to advertisers, media buyers, and our sales teams.

Second, we aligned everyone — our product, editorial, marketing, and commercial teams. This was to ensure every department had a say and was involved in the journey. Every department had to work together. This means understanding each other, interpreting each other (we speak different languages), and adhering to a tight group of principles to achieve the outcome.

Speed, simplicity in navigation, enhancing the experience for our subscribers, clean layout to let content shine, and ease of use for editorial teams were central to everything.

Third, we had to be clever and let the clever people do their thing. The product team was given freedom to find clever solutions to reader problems. An example is that our readers hated seeing the same story in multiple sections on our site, a symptom of our structure. Team members devised a “de-dupe” function so that a story ranked high didn’t appear again on our homepage, no matter how many sections it’s assigned to. Win for readers; win for us.

Once we listened, we also talked. We didn’t keep our relaunch a secret or hide it under covers. Weeks before the launch, we told our readers what was coming, shared videos of the new site and sent them e-mails explaining the changes.

For two days after we went live, we chatted with readers in a live chat. We let them vent their frustrations, helped them find solutions, and gathered as much intel as possible. Our product team documented themes of concern and have already begun improving things further.

Hopefully over time we get more responses like Julie’s: “It is so much better. Congratulations Herald Sun.” Or Michael’s: “So much quicker than the old format on my S7. Everything loads so quickly now.”

Its the beginning of a long journey.