On innovation in digital browsing: The Washington Post’s Cory Haik and Chris Meighan

The Washington Post went live last week with its rweb site, released after test phases over the past few months. Rweb is a new digital reading experience offering about 200 curated stories without having to navigate through the traditional homepage. The project targets The Post’s growing social and mobile audience and incorporates the mobile innovation team’s lessons learned from producing the Washington Post’s Kindle app. Cory Haik, executive producer and senior editor for digital news, and Chris Meighan, design director, share some insights into the mobile innovations team’s process and goals.

Can you share some background on the mobile innovations team?

Cory: We’d been watching the exponential rise of mobile in the last couple of years and knew it was time to focus resourcing in a deliberate way. We started from the ground up, tackling the tablet first. With this first product we brought together a new team of news designers, editors, producers, UX design, engineering, product, etc. We developed an editorial philosophy and design sensibility that took advantage of the small screen to do mobile-first storytelling. We’ve grown our products and grown our group from there. But we are in the innovations mindset everyday knowing that once we launch something it’s on to figuring out what the next thing will be. This is what our team does. We experiment and try to prove out new news experiences for our growing mobile audiences.

What does your day-to-day work look like?

Chris: From the design team’s standpoint, we are 5 person team that staffs at least one designer 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day. Our team produces experiences for tablet, mobile, desktop, mobile web, Apple Watch and a daily newsletter. Our tablet editions publish at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day, while mobile, desktop, mweb and apple watch update continuously throughout the day. The team focuses on creating engaging “covers” for the “Top Stories” section. These are custom designs that help highlight our top stories of the day. The team works closely with our editors and producers on a rolling budget of stories we need to design for throughout the day. We routinely produce anywhere from 30-40 “covers” a day. Since we are producing for so many devices and products the challenge becomes, how do we create designs that are scale-able without creating extra work. There was quite a learning curve for that early on, but we have finally hit a groove where we can pretty much produce one “cover” for each story that will scale appropriately. We also produce a “dynamic icon” (an icon that changes daily based on the news of the day and lives in the carousel) for our Kindle users.

Kindle app "Top Stories" presentation

Kindle app “Top Stories” presentation

How did design play a role in shaping both the web and tablet experiences your team is working on?

Chris: Design is paramount to our products. A conscious decision was made to have the tablet and web mirror each other as closely as possible. Those who subscribe to our tablet app have the option of setting their Washington Post home page to the rweb version. Visually, we want those readers to feel like they are having a seamless experience. We believe strongly in this idea of showing two stories side by side (or on desktop more stories depending on the size of your monitor). We believe showing the reader another story to look at encourages deeper engagement.

When it comes to content design, we are giving each story a unique visuals-driven entry point. We are in a unique position where we can create compelling entry points for stories that ordinarily might not get a visual treatment. In our current suite of products, each story is given it’s own real estate to shine in a very clean organized manner. For stories that don’t receive custom designs, our team of producers and editors have a selection of templates to chose from that the design team created.

Tell me about the rWeb project. The newly rolled out web experience offers a similar feel to your Kindle app, but how did a new platform influence your approach and your goals?

Cory: With the web product, which is very much in an experimental stage, we’re really targeting our mobile/social users. We knew we had a hit on our hands in terms of engagement with the Kindle product. We get lots of feedback about the bold design treatments, the ease of use, the placement of photos and videos in the story at the point the user expects them. But what is really different from a traditional story page is the connection to the bundle we are curating and presenting. That’s the two-story layout. Here we are really trying to offer readers something you don’t get with traditional article pages — serendipity. So far it seems to be working and we are iterating on it all the time.

Rweb two-story layout

Rweb two-story layout

Rweb has a pretty distinct lack of noise, as compared with many other digital news experiences. How did you get buy-in from newsroom stakeholders to achieve this? 

Cory: The Post is a very exciting place right now. The spirit of innovation runs through all of our key initiatives. Everyone is on board with rapid testing and quick-to-market work that improves our journalism and improves the consumption experiences. Sometimes those tests will be radical and sometimes folks might not even notice. Rweb is one of those things that a year ago I could not have predicted we would do. Right now I can’t image not experimenting with a new mobile/social web experience.

The sectioned curation feels very much like reading a print newspaper and the story fronts on the “Top Stories,” “Don’t Miss” and “Backstory” harkens to The Washington Post’s print typography. How much of the product design was intentionally aimed at reflecting your well-recognized print product?

Chris: It was definitely intentional. Our print counterpart has a fantastic design, and a great use of typography, it was our goal to bring that same energy and class to these new products. We believe it is important that all of our products speak to each other visually on some level. We want our readers to be able to engage with any of our products and have that sense of familiarity.

rweb expanded story presentation

rweb expanded story presentation

I’ve seen mixed reviews, ranging from people enjoying the design and highly visual presentation to those who find the side-by-side format distracting or less than ideal. How has the overall response been? What has been the most meaningful feedback for your team?

Cory: The product team listens very closely to our readers on this. Rweb is a very experimental product. It’s changed many times over based on our A/B testing results and we assume that will continue. The responses have been meaningful, and overall, engagement is up — folks are reading more stories, staying longer. And along with the two-story bundle, we think the work the news design and producers are doing to create such immersive articles is really what is keeping them there.

Cory, you come from a digital background, and Chris a print background. Did you seek to build a team with cross-platform design experience? How do your your distinct experiences influence the work your team does?

Cory: One hundred percent! The future of excellent digital news experiences is the connection of strong news design and strong UX. It’s our secret sauce.

Chris: I see the job/mission of the visual journalist as pretty simple, get the reader to engage with your content. That concept is uniform across platforms. In my mind the hallmarks of a great designer is someone who can design for all content areas, has a firm grasp on typography and the ability to create something out of nothing – on a tight deadline. When we assembled our team these where the things we were looking for. Bottom line, our products require us to be fast and creative. Coincidentally, our design team comes from primarily a print background, I believe the rigors of that daily grind prepared us to do a high volume of creative work.