When building product, the why matters more than the outcome

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there. As I am having more and more conversations around the three initiative topics (more here), I find odd moments of clarity around previously held assumptions. I leave conversations newly enlighted and often with a whole new set of questions.

Today’s newsletter contains an article where I have tried to join the dots between two such recent observations, summarising why I think there is still a lot to be gained from building (the right) tools.  

As always, your thoughts, comments, and ideas are not only welcome but necessary for this initiative, so please message me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.com if you have another to share or would like to schedule time to talk.

All the best, Jodie.

3 benefits of building tools 

In January, I shared that one of our big themes for 2022 is looking beyond traditional news products. Anecdotally, many product leaders had mentioned this as an area of focus. And thus our first Webinar of the year was focused on that very theme. Yet when I started looking for speakers, something strange happened: Few were willing to share stories yet. 

It seems that though many of you are looking at tools and utilities, these are still very much in the process of being worked out. In this post, I outline a few examples of tools. I hope that by the end of the year, I can give an update on further tools that have been launched. 

For the sake of ease, we’re defining tools that have a lean-in experience: The consumer needs to input some kind of information to get a personalised response. This can be as simple as adding your postal code to get local weather, kids ages and postal code to check out local schools, or financial information to calculate what mortgage payments could be.

The benefits of having tools are fairly clear. Here are a few upsides:

1. Greater engagement and stickiness, especially when a user inputs once and then continues to benefit from that information. For example, Yahoo Finance makes it easy for users to add their stocks or brokerage accounts to get an overview of their stock portfolio. Once the user has invested the time to enter the information, they’re incentivised to come back for updates rather than follow each stock individually. This creates a habit. 

Users of Yahoo Finance enter their stock and brokerage information, encouraging them to keep returning.
Users of Yahoo Finance enter their stock and brokerage information, encouraging them to keep returning.

Another excellent example of this is The New York Times acquisition of the recent hit game Wordle. Each day is a new game, incentivising people to come back. The sharing mechanism has become a sensation on the likes of Twitter (Don’t believe me? Search Wordle on Twitter!). If this isn’t habit inducing, I don’t know what is!

Wordle incentivises people to share their game, which is new each day.
Wordle incentivises people to share their game, which is new each day.

2. Data capture. By definition we ask users to enter some kind of information to use a tool. We can use this data to build profiles of individuals and by cohorts, which improves our first-party data collections. By making the tool useful to the reader, the data we capture is more accurate. Some news organisations create tools specifically for this reason. I’ve previously written more about progressive profiling.

3. Incremental revenue streams. Once a tool is built out, and if it is showing exceptional uptake and stickiness, it can also provide an additional revenue stream. An excellent example of that is The New York Times Cooking tool. Not only is the company producing excellent content, but they’ve made it into a tool that allows users to add their favourite recipes from anywhere on the Web. They have productised content to give readers what they want and are therefore willing to pay for.  

The New York Times Cooking tool allows users to add their favourite recipes from any source.
The New York Times Cooking tool allows users to add their favourite recipes from any source.

And, of course, some tools come from a genuine need from users. Claus Hessling, data journalist at NDR, shared their local COVID 19 tracker, which allowed people to enter their post code to get localised updates each day, on the platform of their choice. (Note: NDR is publicly funded so doesn’t necessarily need to incentivise people to come back to their own platforms). 

NDR's COVID 10 tracker gave users location-specific daily updates.
NDR's COVID 10 tracker gave users location-specific daily updates.

Wow I hear you say, what wonderful ideas, let’s do more! Of course, there is a cost to all this. A lot of cost. These kinds of tools take a lot of product and development time to get right. And they absolutely need to be right for the consumer for them to “lean in” and add their valuable information.

As we know with product launches, we also need marketing to ensure that users know what we have, how to use it, and what the benefits are. Once people are actually using it, it’s rarely set it and forget it. We’re likely to find small bugs and have ideas for improvements. Maintenance also, therefore, has to be factored in. 

So while tools and utilities can have a huge amount of upside, we need to be fairly sure of that to spend the time and effort to develop and maintain them. 

I am very buoyant on the development of this area and think we will see more creative tools and utilities. If you have one to share, please e-mail me at jodie.hopperton@inma.org.

False friends: focusing on the outcome, not the why

In several conversations over the last few weeks, I’ve had discussions around optimising for the right things. As I have said before, the single biggest thing that I have learnt so far in the initiative is that having clear goals is everything.  

(Here comes the but …)

BUT, optimising for a single outcome can be detrimental. 

Product teams must not prioritise data over the why behind the data.
Product teams must not prioritise data over the why behind the data.

You may remember early in the initiative, I asked why the design of Amazon was so cluttered and why that was seen as a good thing. The answer is that Amazon optimises for sales, which has given them enormous success. Customers are at the center of everything. The “but” here is that now we are seeing that this ruthless optimisation is at the expense of other areas, such as employees and small businesses, amongst other things. 

Many of us optimise for time spent. It’s a reasonable assumption that if people are enjoying themselves or finding the content useful, they spend more time on our products — a sensible metric by all accounts and one that the industry uses as a benchmark. Yet, as Chris Moran, head of editorial innovation at The Guardian, pointed out on a recent Webinar, there are instances where people are coming to us looking for information. And the quicker we give it to them, the better. This very likely scenario skews our sensible metric.  

That’s likely why Schibsted in Norway optimises for time well spent — a small yet important tweak to how they view consumers use of their product. 

Another example came up when I spoke to Matt Cassella, UX and design director at Newsday in the USA. He told me about a scenario where some changes had been made to the design on the home page and the heat map glowed red at certain spots. He was skeptical — too good to be true! — so looked into it and his gut reaction was right. He found that the clicks were not a good thing: People weren’t going to other pages and staying on them. Through investigation, he found readers were “rage” clicking: they were clicking out of frustration, not because they were happily active on site. If they had been optimising for clicks, this would have been fantastic. But actually it was the opposite of the desired outcome. 

Why am I writing this? Because as product people we need to look at the why behind the numbers. The data is so vastly important, but we need to go beyond that when making product decisions. 

Date for the diary: Thursday, February 24

I’m so excited that the second Product Initiative report will be out this week. It’s a time-tested structure that helps news teams build products in a smart way that invests resources when we have some certainty around outcomes. And, importantly, it works to adapt culture to embrace change and try new things. The report, “7 Steps to a Successful Media Product Process,” takes you through this process alongside a number of case studies to demonstrate. I hope you find it helpful.

You can download the report here on Thursday!

Tweet of the week

This tweet speaks for itself. And a couple of great comments add self-starter, the ability to say no, and the author should have reordered to spell CLASSIC ;)

Recommended reading  

INMA’s editors, initiative leaders, experts, and volunteer leaders scour the world of media to find sources of inspiration. These are vetted third-party sources. They are global in nature or have global ramifications, the subject matter is unique, our experts determine this is a “best of” quality, and/or the report is freely available. 

Here’s our curated product list.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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