We all chuckled at The Washington Post’s commercial for its new iPad app, and why not, with Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, two guys who epitomize the best of old-school journalism, playing around on a device that many peg as the future of media. The commercial is slick, well produced and well thought out, not unlike the Post’s app itself.
They’re both the product of lots of planning, which is what Justin Ferrell, the director of digital, mobile & new product design for the Post, talked with me about a few days ago at the INMA Transformation of News Summit that took place here in Cambridge. Ferrell delivered a insightful presentation on the Post’s iPad app, saying the paper avoided rushing an app to market for the iPad because they “wanted to leapfrog, not just put the Washington Post newspaper on the device.”
The app combines a touch-friendly design that also goes farther than other newspaper apps have in incorporating social media, to allow users to share stories as well as see what others are discussing in connection to news. Ferrell said they know the Post’s brand will bring a built in audience to everything they publish, but “over time, that’s only an incremental audience and it’s going to diminish.” Hence the need to reach new readers. I spoke to Ferrell following his talk about developing the iPad app, the competition for design and user-experience talent in journalism, and how they produced that commercial. We started off talking about frustrations in developing an app and reconciling that with what’s “good enough” for the public. Check out the video or read the transcript below. (And let me apologize now for the at times shaky camera work.)
Justin Ellis: You said sort of two things that to me were interesting. One is that it’s okay to be sort of questioning how good it is, but at the same time kind of mindful of the fact that some of these things aren’t considerations that users might have.
Justin Ferrell: Right, right.
Ellis: So how do those two things work when you’re developing something?
Ferrell: So I’ll give you a real live example. You know, our app is based on a lot of feeds. You know, it’s a feed-based app, rather than like the magazine apps that are designed — you know, heavily designed and then put into the device.
So when we were talking about how to get the correct photo feeds for the sizing and everything that we wanted, it was a lot of discussion with our tech group. And there were a lot of things with the way it works currently with the site. So we were trying to take the photos that we used for the site and size and stuff for that, and use it on this smaller device. So we wanted them to be resized in some ways, which adds to the amount of volume of photos that are gonna go through and all that.
And it became apparent during the discussion that, in order to do that, we would need to buy a new server that would be able to host all these images. And short of buying a new server, we could do it the way that we did it currently, but some of the photos would not fill the frame on the app. So there would be some grey space around it or something like that.
So that’s a situation where we basically then, the editorial design team basically said, you know, no one that downloads the app is gonna understand that the reason why there’s grey around those photos is because we don’t have another server, right? They don’t care about that. They care about what do the photos look like. And so in the end, we bought the new server so that we could preserve the experience.
And that’s just like one example of the kind of thing companies go through internally when they’re creating products like this. They’re like all right, here’s the problem. How are we gonna solve the problem? We can do it existing ways. Obviously, we had pressure with — what does it cost for that new server, all those kinds of things. You have to make your choices based on the priorities of what you want the experience to end up being.
But you know, being from the design side, we espouse the user all the time. It’s sort of our job to do that and say look, what’s the experience gonna be? We have to overcome this hurdle because the users aren’t gonna care. All they’re gonna care about is what it looks like to them.
Ellis: One of the things that seems very novel about the app and something you touched on in your presentation was the inclusion of feeds and sort of the piece about engagement. Talk to us about that and why that was important. I mean, obviously you guys have a lot of content that you produce that could’ve been used in a number of ways, but it’s very important for you guys to have that social media piece, not just where people can share things, but also pulling in almost third parties, like experts around stories and topics.
Ferrell: Right. Sure. So I focused today on that part of it, and I mean the app has everything else that we do, the writing, the photography that we do, video plays right there in the app. And all that is very cool. But we’ve made a real commitment to move into what we can do with social media and journalism.
And it’s not my department, but it’s a colleague of mine who runs it, Katharine Zaleski, who I mentioned came from Huffington Post, and has a lot of great ideas about how we can increase engagement using social media.
And so that was the piece of this that we really wanted to push beyond just having Washington Post content be on the app. And so, you know, the idea there is that it’s fun for us to think sort of philosophically — the question we were thinking with the Twitter piece of it was you know, what does a Twitter publication look like? And you know, that’s not a unique question anymore.
I was just reading that article in Fast Company about Chloe Sladden, and they’re doing a lot with TV networks now too. And you know, you’ve seen in big news events with the earthquake in Haiti that people are using social media to give you real-time reporting from the ground from citizens, especially for breaking news.
And so, I think it’s more than that. And what Katharine sort of came up with that really crystalized the concept was that we want to give you all of the Post content — we want to give you the value that that provides — but we also want to give you the conversation that it inspires, and that’s where the social media component comes in, and so that that was the original idea.
Ellis: At this point in terms of tablets and tablet apps for newspapers, do you believe that the focus should be on experimentation, should it be monetization? Where do you think things should be going at this point? What should be the idea?
Ferrell: Yeah so, you know, I have a lot of thoughts about the big picture. I’m kind of a big picture person, and I lead a team of specialists. But that said, you know, I am also very aware that, you know, we’re the design group and our primary focus should be creating novel interesting experiences, right? If the design group is not doing that, which group is going to do that, right? So, you know, what the Post ultimately decides about how you are going to monetize things and all of that is not specifically in my realm. I have opinions about that. But my focus is really on, if we create a user experience that really adds value to people’s lives, surely we’ll be able to sell that in someway, right? And so, you know, my focus is on the front end of that, very much like what the startups do, you know, I mean what the Flipboards and the Pulses do. I mean, Pulse charged when they first came out, but now they don’t and, you know, they’re building a following. And if you have a following, you create a market for what it is that you provide, then you’ll be able to figure out, you know, what you’re going to do with that information.
Ellis: Do you think that there is a race now for talent in finding the people who can help develop these types of apps? That’s one of the things that you talked about obviously trying to find talent from within journalism but also outside of it.
Ferrell: Yeah, you know because it is such a new medium and because most of the decision makers of big media companies have been there for a long time. You know, you’re looking for young people that don’t have a lot of experience but that you can, you know, sort of guide and also trust their ideas, and I think that’s a real culture change for a lot of newsrooms. But yeah, it’s difficult. You know, we have a lot of good relationships with schools, you know — we have a lot of people from Chapel Hill in our design and graphics department because the multimedia program there is so good. So I generally reach out to schools first and then also try to find people who, you know, have already done really interesting work, but maybe that’s the only thing they have in their portfolio and try to see what the potential is.
But I absolutely think you have to go looking for these people, and then you have to figure out that whatever hire you make, you know, you prioritize the skill set that you are looking for, but there is always something that like you as a manager will have to fill in the gap for. And so I feel pretty confident, because I am the type of manager that can help my people build relationships in the newsroom — put them with the right people in order to create interesting ideas, you know whether they are reporters or editors or photographers or whatever, because that’s the way I always was as a designer, and I have those relationships at the Post, you know, and it can be difficult for someone to come in — it’s a big place — and not know who to talk to and how to get it done. And that’s actually one of the great things about being in a place like The Post is that you can always, you know, if you have a great idea, you can always find experts who can add to that idea, make it better, and help execute it in their particular expertise.
So anyway, yeah, it’s hard to find right people and even trickier than finding like you know, recent graduates or young journalists is — you know, I think we need people who are not in journalism. And I’ll give you an example: We were looking for a UX designer right now. We never had anyone who has expertise in training specifically in UX. We’ve always had, you know sort of generalists as web designers, and a lot of them have created their own sites from scratch when they do freelance or whatever, and so UX is part of that. But I really want someone who has like a master’s degree in human computer interaction. And so I contacted a professor at IU because they have a degree program in that, and it’s well known. And so he’s reaching out to his students. And these are folks that are not journalists by in large, right? And in some of the conversations I’ve had with those people it’s really sort of selling — from my end to get them interested — it’s really sort of selling the public service that we do.
I mean, there’s so much that you can do in web design right now. And you might go to a commercial site that you know, sells clothes or shoes, or whatever it is that they sell, and it’s the coolest site you’ve ever seen. But there are people who don’t want to sell a product, who want to contribute to the public service of journalism. And I think we have an opportunity to bring on people who are interested in that value system. And so that’s one of the things I try to do.
Ellis: Finally, let’s talk quickly about the ad or the commercial I guess, for the iPad app. That made a big splash and seemed to be floating around on the Internet for a while — people were very amused by it. Two things that struck me: one, that it’s funny, and two, that you guys wrapped in a lot of the personalities and people that are known from The Post, and folks that probably might be more known in journalism circles. How do you think those two things helped to sort of guide people, walk them through what the app offers and also what kind of Washington Post content that you get with it?
Ferrell: Yeah. You know, that was another thing that Katherine really managed and got together. And the director of that project, we hired him as a freelancer — Rufus Lusk is a friend of The Post and a really talented guy. He brought in his team and they did it in the newsroom — really from the idea we had, to do it was sort of at the end when we were about to launch, and got the whole thing done in about a week and a half.
She tells a funny story, Katherine, that when she first emailed Bob Woodward about it she said is it possible on Monday that I could have four hours of your time to do this, you know, in the course of their conversation. And he emailed back and said I thought that was a typo — four hours? Because it’s not like he just gives up four hours of time. But what ended up happening was they really got into it and he spent all day there in the end, filming it.
The idea was to show people that yeah, these are the people that you know from the Post because everybody, most people know the Post for Watergate. You know, Bob still works with the Post, Ben still comes to work every day. He’s part of the corporate office now, but he’s still there, he eats in the cafeteria, he’s around. And we wanted to show you that the Post that you know of old can also be new. And that we’re doing this new thing. And we’re on board with it. And it’s not sort of stodgy old media. And so it was funny to have Ben be the one who’s showing Bob how to do it.
And then we were pretty — you know, we went through it scene by scene and figured out what we wanted to say about it in the course of Bob walking through the newsroom. And you’re right, there are some jokes in there that are really funny to us that other people might not know, like when the one that says was that Robert Redford? You know, because of the movie. And those two women who are sitting there who say that are our celebritologists, so they’re the ones who cover celebrity and everyone doesn’t know that, obviously.
And Dana Priest is the one who’s sitting there and says “it’s about bringing them into the newsroom” And of course Dana’s won two Pulitzers, but people outside of journalism don’t know who Dana Priest is necessarily. So yeah, we tried to bring in our big personalities — Chris Cillizza is in it and Dana Milbank, and some of our well-known individual personalities.
But each little scene shows something they can do with it. And even you know, the sports folks who are talking, they’re showing the clarity and the sharpness of what photos look like on there and things like that. So yeah, I thought it ended up really great. It totally accomplished what we wanted it to, which was we wanted people to pick it up, and send it around. And so it was good for saying that our app’s out there. But I think it’s also really good for showing people that hey, you know, the Post is a pretty cool place and it’s not just a big media, big old dinosaur media or whatever people like to say about us, so. It was a lot of fun.