Steve Mulder on his ‘venn diagram of happiness’ at NPR Digital Services
Judy Siegel: Can you discuss the role NPR Digital Services fills in the overall NPR organization?
Steve Mulder: We’re a Boston-based group within NPR that focuses exclusively on serving NPR stations across the country. In a nutshell, we provide products, services, and consulting that help stations become as powerful online as they are on air. Stations can decide which of our offerings they want to use, everything from a home-brewed CMS to an audio stream player, email marketing tool, digital news training, analytics service, and many more.
JS: What is “Lean UX” and how does it work at NPR?
SM: We’ve used Agile for product development for a few years now, and are starting to incorporate more Lean techniques as well. At its core, I see the value of Lean as flipping the product development model on its head. Rather than building a product and then figuring out how to test its effectiveness, you start with the question (or assumption) you care most about and figure out what is the minimal thing you need to create to answer that question. This does NOT mean minimal UX. It means the right UX for the specific challenge given the target audience, the objective, and the platform. And a willingness to iterate based on what you learn.
JS: What overall process does NPR Digital Services follow for product work?
SM: We like Agile scrum because it’s truly collaborative and delivers measurable results to our customers (NPR stations) quickly. Designers are integrated into the product teams and ensure that our work is user-centered from the start. Wireframes and specs are very rare here; instead, you’ll find lots of collaborative whiteboard sessions, sketching, and designing in the browser.
JS: What are the unique challenges you encounter being the UX Director at Digital Services versus being a UX Director at a non-media company/org or even at an agency?
SM: For me, this role is a venn diagram of happiness. I apply my former agency experience by working with stations on digital strategy, and simultaneously I get to bring products to life over the long haul and evolve them based on what we learn, something that agencies rarely experience. And I get to do all this within an organization whose mission I completely believe in.
Most of the challenges I face are similar to those in many organizations. Too few resources and too little time to get so much done. A constantly changing media and technology landscape. Politics of serving a wide-ranging customer base.
JS: Digital Services serves stations, which can greatly range in audience size; how do you evangelize the importance of UX for smaller affiliates?
SM: NPR stations vary wildly, and how we serve them varies as well. We’re not large enough to provide one-on-one UX consulting and services to everyone, so most of the UX goodness we do is embedded in the products we create. We focus on delivering the right user experience in our CMS, audio player, etc. so that NPR stations can simply focus on what they’re great at (creating unique content) and trust the tools to deliver experiences that simply work. In addition to running UX, I also head up the Analytics Service we provide to stations, which is another way we ground stations in the reality of what’s working (and not working) in engaging their online audiences.
JS: What are challenges that very large stations, like WBEZ (Chicago) or WNYC (New York City) or WAMU (Washington, DC) face?
SM: Like any media organization, they battle for audience every single day. But unlike most commercial media, public radio stations are not primarily driven by the pageview or advertiser, but by our underlying mission to create a more informed public through unique perspectives and insights. In such a diversified and fragmented media landscape, getting noticed is a challenge, and so is attracting new loyal audience members who will donate to these stations and ensure their survival.
JS: What specific challenges do small stations face?
SM: The long tail of stations that we serve includes some that are just four volunteers in a university basement. Their focus has to be keeping the lights on, the antenna broadcasting, and underwriters signing checks. Enhancing their digital presence is important to them, but with so few resources, they need all the help they can get from us and other vendors.
JS: What does the future of UX at NPR look like?
SM: More than anything, it’s about experimentation, particularly in online listening experiences, which after all is at the core of what we do. The connection between UX and research and testing gets tighter and tighter, so we learn faster and faster what’s working and what isn’t. It is also an “all of the above” future in which we create experiences that delight people at every touchpoint, whether they want to engage with public radio via a local station, direct with NPR, using an aggregator, and so on – on every type of device we can or cannot yet imagine. As our CEO likes to say, “Radio isn’t going away, it’s going everywhere.”
JS: What project are you most proud of, and what did you learn from it?
SM: Here’s a project that speaks to how very simple experiences can have big impact: We did an experiment last year that involved injecting selected station content into NPR’s overall Facebook stream, but geo-targeted, so that only NPR’s followers in Seattle would get posts from KPLU. We saw such fantastic results with this experiment that we built a simple tool that enables stations to submit stories and collaborate with NPR editors, who can then publish directly from the tool to NPR’s Facebook stream. We learned as a team that when an experiment works, pivot quickly, double down, and deliver that value to as many customers as we can.