Joining us at SNDDC will be the Star Tribune’s Derek Simmons, Jim Bernard and Josh Penrod and Upstatement’s Mike Swartz to share a look behind the scenes of the StarTribune.com redesign. The leaders from team will share their experiences from the newsroom planning and launching the site’s makeover, while Swartz will discuss the opportunities and challenges of rethinking your digital presence.
Can you tell me some background on what prompted the makeover of StarTribune.com?
Derek Simmons: I think two main things brought it on: A genuine need to modernize our site and the actual funding to assist in making improvements. The website wasn’t broken. In fact, we’ve had great traffic and strong feedback during the last couple of years. But there was an internal movement to build a site with more urgency and nuance around storytelling that better reflected our status as the leading regional and state news organization.
Jim Bernard: It had been three years since our last redesign and we needed to adapt to a very different digital landscape. We had three major issues to address: the dramatic changes in consumer behavior (mobile, social, skimming), the complete overhaul of the marketing world (programmatic buying, high-impact ad units, targeting and data systems), and the advances in storytelling (from NYT’s Snowfall to new generation story pages). Our existing site and infrastructure needed to be modernized and we made the business case around that idea.
How did you go about finding the right consultant? What makes Upstatement a good fit for your redesign project?
Derek Simmons: Upstatement emerged for a couple of reason. One, we really liked their newsroom experience. These guys spoke our language. Along those lines, they felt like a natural extension of us. We could have hired any of them for various roles in the newsroom and they would have fit in and thrived. Furthermore, they had a calm, understated confidence about their work that spoke volumes. They weren’t boastful or preachy, but they clearly had a strong portfolio that projected a rock solid understanding of the many issues attached to a complex editorial redesign. The Star Tribune was not going to accept any kind of hostile takeover by redesign consultants. There was zero chance of that happening with Upstatement.
Josh Penrod: Of the firms with whom we spoke, Upstatement had the clearest understanding of all the boxes we need to check as storytellers. They were up to the task of helping us create a smart, engaging site while keeping in mind our content-creation workflows and our back-end capabilities. Even better, we had an immediate synergy around our design philosophies — powerful visuals, clean and sophisticated typography, and less-is-more simplicity rules the day in storytelling. Striking the balance between organized presentation and user-centered utility is critical to our site’s success, and Upstatement has a history of demonstrating they share those values.
Jim Bernard: We needed a firm that would connect with the newsroom because redesigns are cultural. You need your site to reflect both your ambitions and reality. But I was looking for a firm that would also bring in the reader perspective. We can be very internally focused and you need someone who is going to think “outside the building.” Finally, it was important to find a partner who could work in an iterative code-based system. We wanted to get out of the comps and into the code as quickly as possible. We had a good pool of choices, but Upstatement had the right mix of these qualities.
Tell me a little about the process and how you involved newsroom stakeholders in planning the site’s redesign.
Derek Simmons: One of the first things we did was divide the redesign into four separate buckets: Navigation, homepage, section fronts and article pages. Each bucket was assigned a project manager, and that person worked to get the right people in the right places to ask the right questions. Before that, Mike Swartz and I had a kickoff conversation about the overall design philosophy of the Star Tribune. That was followed by a few design jam sessions where we used a couple of conference calls to talk about the state of the current site and what we hoped to get out of the new one. One really useful thing we did during those sessions was a typographic exploration. The crew from Upstatement took our branded typography and showed how it could be used displaying our content. It helped us see what was possible during those initial steps down the path of the redesign. As far as newsroom stakeholders, we’ve conducted various sneak peeks over the last couple of months to allow for feedback and tweaks.
Jim Bernard: As the digital business owner, I knew that the project was about the ambitions of what we could do as a news organization. So from the beginning we talked about what their strategic goals were — before we did a single comp, mock or piece of code. We paired this with similar lists from other parts of the organization, especially the ad team, so that we could see where we had agreements and where there were conflicts. Once we had the top-line objectives set it was a matter of getting them driving the design system and expressing their vision. We had an early check-in with a focus group that helped time-box our ambition/design phase and gave us immediate feedback about how we were doing with readers.
Mike Swartz: Part of our process at the beginning of every project is to conduct a discovery phase where we interview stakeholders and observe them in their roles. We pay attention to what they’re saying, but also what they’re doing and try to observe their inspirations, motivations and pressures. The early talks with Derek, Jim and others were really useful in getting a handle on what each stakeholder thought of as the opportunity for the project. As our team was dealing with various stakeholders in the newsroom, product department or advertising, we had a conceptual framework for how all these people worked together and what they would be looking for in the design and strategy. We then just started testing things out, starting with paper prototypes and wireframes and getting to more high fidelity things like Invision comps. We work pretty quickly, so we jumped on the phone with various groups and got quick feedback on ideas before reworking and moving on to the next version. It also helped to have a lot of the team in Slack so we could quickly share ideas and have side conversations without a full-blown conference call.
What has been the biggest obstacle so far in the site redesign process so far?
Derek Simmons: One of the biggest obstacles has been reconciling our broad ambition with the need to build a sustainable site that can be driven by our current digital staff. It’s something we are still struggling to come to terms with. We’ll have to pick our battles to be successful over the long haul. I’d say a close second is finding a balance between content and advertising. No doubt we would love minimal disruption, but the sobering truth is, like most newsrooms, we’re a business that still has a significant reliance on digital ad revenue. The challenge has been to find enough ways to give advertising ample revenue-generating opportunities and yet maintain a satisfying user experience. Lastly, I’d say just the sheer number of stakeholders representing vastly different wants and needs. Everyone has varying opinions and business interests, but the one thing that unifies us all is the desire to have an outstanding website.
Jim Bernard: People who work in news are passionate about what they do and their digital products. And not surprisingly, they don’t always agree on all the details. So one obstacle we faced was reconciling our differences and then squaring the results with what readers want. Another challenge has been working through the commercial opportunities that intersect with user experience and design. Our solutions there I believe are leading edge and strike the right balance, but they were not easy and pre-launch are still untested in the real world.
Mike Swartz: Not sure if this counts as an “obstacle”, but one interesting constraint is that the existing user satisfaction is quite high. Sometimes you deal with redesign situations where the old site is a total loss; just burn it down and everyone will be happier. But the StarTrib’s existing presence is familiar and trusted, and user testing told us that users knew how to use it and were habituated to it. We also got an interesting tip from Steve Yeager in marketing that clued us into some user psychology. There’s a Scandinavian concept called “Law of Jante” that was pretty interesting. It’s about avoiding excessive displays of virtuosity or individuality. As Steve said, the new site can’t be “too fancy.” It should be an evolution, and every improvement or enhancement should be an obvious step forward, not different for different’s sake. So we approached the interfaces with the goal of designing for an end user who was very happy with their current site. Not bringing too much design ego to the table, or making things flip, wiggle and zing just because we could. One of the biggest compliments in early user testing was when users were asked to compare the new site to the existing one, people had a hard time recalling the existing site and said that the new site “felt like the StarTribune.”
Josh Penrod: User-testing, as we expected, was revelatory. The challenge going in was to make sure we were listening to user feedback with both ears. The Star Tribune has deep brand loyalty and, as Mike points out, we don’t take that lightly. We learned an awful lot about our prototype, particularly around navigation cues. In a few cases, we discovered we weren’t doing enough to help users find and discover content they were used to finding on the current site. Following user testing, our realization was simple — we’re doing a lot of things right (and a handful of things wrong). But, we have a clear opportunity to get some things really right.
How are you planning ahead for opportunities and success in your digital presence?
Derek Simmons: We started by adding three new digital jobs in January. We recognize that with a new website comes the responsibility to feed it strong content made even stronger through smart presentation. The truth is we’re probably not done adding resources. A lot of that will shake out post launch, when we can really dial in our needs based on the evolution of the site.
Josh Penrod: Much of our site redesign blueprint was predicated on making sure the core content always shines, particularly on article pages. We designed our article pages from the start to honor that content, and to shove clutter out of the way. Once the redesign is deployed, we’ll need to look for every opportunity to curate an immersive experience that leverages clean presentation, bold photography and video, and controlled typography. In many ways, it’ll force all our digital designers to think like editors and take a holistic approach with our design.
Jim Bernard: Under the technical hood of this project is an entirely new digital infrastructure. This modern system is based on the multi-platform, multi-device world. We have separated the design and presentation layer from the curation and data layer. This is an example of how we are building for a world of rapid change as opposed to specific point in time redesign. When news wants to move to wearables or even the Occulus Rift we can start at the design layer instead of having to craft a system from the ground up. This should speed innovation and digital growth for many years to come.