How Newsday incorporates audience testing to unify product vision

By Matthew Cassella


New York

In the past, Newsday started developing digital projects as a gut initiative, but user testing is making us rethink how we focus our vision. Using a combination of different design and development techniques, we are changing how we create digital products. The evolution of this new process includes how we sort and quantify our data.

Quantitative user data has always been easy for us to collect using Google Analytics, Mather, and Adobe Metrics, to name a few sources. Some of this data is easy to delineate.

Newsday uses a mix of design thinking, user testing, and qualitative analysis to develop the most user-friendly products.
Newsday uses a mix of design thinking, user testing, and qualitative analysis to develop the most user-friendly products.

For example, with the unique visitors metric, we can clearly see a user came to a page and assume it was because he was interested in our content. But how do you demystify his experience on the site? Metrics like time spent are not always an oranges-to-oranges comparison. Maybe this user had trouble finding what he was looking for and spent all his time clicking around frustrated. That could be misinterpreted as the perception that he was really engaged.

The point is, regardless of how diligent you are with your metrics analysis, you need to have a qualitative check to make sure you are coming to the right conclusions.

In online publishing, now more than ever, it’s about subscribers. News organisations are rapidly trying to figure out the best possible subscriber acquisition methods. Acquisition alone is not enough; retention is key, and user experience (UX) plays a large role in keeping customers engaged. It is a constant challenge to make sure your customers are happy and keep coming back.

Newsday is using a combination of design thinking, user testing, and qualitative data to try and solve this. Design thinking teaches us to include more people in the planning process to get more diverse perspectives. Qualitative data collection tools like Hotjar and help us identify pitfalls early in the development process.

This methodology has helped us increase engagement on our digital platforms by knowing more about what our customers actually want. These types of tools give us a lens into how our customers behave and their feelings toward our brand and products. Newsday is integrating user testing into every step of our existing workflow.

Design process migration

In the past, without qualitative tools, we would bring our unvetted designs to a large conference room and collect feedback from an internal group of people who, frankly, are not users. Although internal feedback is useful, we forget that, as an organisation, we are too close to our own products to give user-centric feedback.

How do we fix this? In comes design thinking and the test-refine-repeat cycle.

First, we identify a product that falls in line with the core interests of our users, which we’ve helped identify through our quantitative data collection. Second, we brainstorm ideas for products and services that would enhance and delight our customers, including stakeholders from every corner of our organisation. Third, we mock up the product idea in a rough wireframe or high-fidelity format, vet it internally, get initial feedback, refine it again, then set it up in Invision, an online staging area for digital products. Lastly, we set up a user test on the mock-up to determine the viability of the product.

No one has time to develop a product no one wants, so we test early and often so if we fail, we fail fast. Every failure is a victory. Knowing if a customer is interested or would use a product or feature before we develop it saves us time and money. If we succeed, we know we are on the right path to creating delight in our customers.

From our tests, we get insight into what our customers like and want, which is critical in developing successful digital products. We use this feedback to refine and polish our products for our first development iteration.

The beauty of iteration

We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve identified a product or feature we know our users want and would use. So now what?

In the past, we would take countless months behind closed doors developing products with every bell and whistle we could think of in hopes of creating a completely immersive experience at first launch. This approach rarely yielded the results we anticipated. It was either so feature rich that no one used half of what we developed, or it didn’t satisfy a need our customers actually had.

In comes agile methodology and the iterative approach. Do you have a great product you know your users want? Create just that and keep it simple at first.

Think of it this way: You don’t go buy the best fishing boat on the market to find out there are no fish in the sea. Test before you invest. Cast out your line and see what you can catch. The best route to simplicity is keeping ideas in a bank to prevent scope or feature creep. Know you need to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) and bank the rest for the next iteration. This approach allows you to go to market faster and remain agile in your development practices.

If you use the mentality that there is no second version and only better versions of version one, it will allow you to take an iterative approach. It is commonplace to think “if we don’t cram it all in now, we’ll never get to it.”

This is partly true, but remember your users should be steering the boat. Are they going to use all those fancy features you thought up? Ship your MVP, then test, gather feedback, and watch users interact with it with tools like Hotjar or VWO. You’ll gain insight into products you may never have thought of, and it will keep your product vision on the right track.

UX to improve retention

I spoke earlier about UX being the key to subscriber retention … but how?

You can try to walk a mile in your customers’ shoes or you can just ask. Knowing what is breaking down or creating pain points in your digital experience will make you more proactive and focused on fixing them.

In other words, do you want to retain customers? Fix the things that are frustrating them. People that pay for something are more likely to keep paying if they enjoy their experience and get what they expect from your products. If they don’t or you fail to provide delight and instead frustrate, they’ll most likely tell 10 of their friends.

A negative user experience is bad for your brand, bad for subscriber retention, and bad for your bottom line. At Newsday, we strive to create digital products that allow for seamless consumption of content. Removing barriers and furniture no one uses cleans up your interfaces and streamlines consumption, which leads to improved UX, happy customers, and better retention.

Newsday incorporated user testing to refine its approach in marketing its digital restaurants product, FeedMe.
Newsday incorporated user testing to refine its approach in marketing its digital restaurants product, FeedMe.

Recently we did just that. Using our newly established product life cycle we set out to improve our digital restaurants product, FeedMe. We took our test-and-refine approach to identify the main KPIs and vision for the product. With this, we mocked up our internal ideas and tested our hypotheses. Some ideas were thrown out and some were solidified, but overall our research assisted in polishing our ideas into a viable product we knew would resonate with our customers.

The result? Improved engagement and a product that increases propensity to subscribe: 60% of our customers said they would be more likely to subscribe by having access to FeedMe.

Paving forward testing, refining, and testing

As we look to the future, we see a lot of potential to improve engagement and retention with no shortage of ideas. In every stage of our process we test. Even if you don’t have the wireframes or high-fidelity mocks, it’s easy to send out a list of ideas to users and ask them if it’s something they would be interested in. Not just with digital products but with content ideas as well.

This mentality is the key to retention for Newsday. We will continue to develop thoughtful, simple enhancements to the user interface, personalisation options, games, and interesting ways of telling unique and important stories our customers want to hear.

Customers are our family. They are key to our successes and failures. It’s all about how thoughtful you are in delivering awe and delight.

As a father of two, I read a lot of self-help books like Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets to Happy Families to get insight into family life. I do a fairly good job on my own, but the more I read about being a good father, the more I realise the similarities with a business's customers.

If you think of customers as your family, you start making the right decisions to retain their business. The best way to get on the right path is to just ask, “What do you want?” The more you ask, the better you’ll get at answering just that.

About Matthew Cassella

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