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June 17, 2013, 5:48 a.m.

Monday Q&A: Designer David Wright, departing NPR for Twitter, has just one favor to ask

“How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content?”

David Wright is an award-winning designer who, in his time at NPR, worked on everything from their mobile music platform to NPR’s homepage design. Wright has spent a lot of time sharing his design philosophy with the news world, trying to explain how he built what he built, but also trying to make news managers understand the importance of making design a priority early on.

But now, Wright is leaving the news world behind — sort of. He’ll be moving over to Twitter, to work with what he considers an all-star team of web platform designers. (He joins API whiz Daniel Jacobson, now at Netflix, as NPR talent to move to prominent positions in the technology world — not the most common path.) Though not entirely sure what projects he’ll be working on, Wright says he has a lot of big ideas for simplifying Twitter and making it a bigger part of a variety of websites. And while he won’t be working in a newsroom anymore, Wright predicts he’ll learn a lot about how people are sharing and consuming information that could, down the road, be of great value to publishers.

Days before his final departure, we chatted about building platforms for distribution of audio, narrowcasting, Twitter on steroids, and World War II-era telephone operators.

O’Donovan: So! Obviously, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on for you. How does it feel to be packing up and heading out of NPR?
Wright: I think that I have not yet realized how hard it will be for me to walk out of this building on Friday afternoon.

There’s a lot of really amazing stuff going on here, and it’s bittersweet because I’ve been really excited about what we’ve done here, and I don’t know if I really realize what it will be like to leave some of this amazing work unfinished.

O’Donovan: What are some of the bigger projects that are hanging out there, that you’re passing on? How do you and with whom do you hope to see them completed?
Wright: Well, that they will be completed is not really a question. They will be. The big ones that are going on right now are — the most obvious one is we’re in the midst of a fully responsive redesign of that we began last fall and are picking away at, section by section. We’ve recently launched the small screen version of a redesigned and rethought homepage, and soon we’ll be releasing that to more viewports and moving on to the rest of the important pages, not just So that’s exciting. And I think in many ways the team is moving at a breakneck pace and I’ll be excited when the whole site kind of is finally launched in this unified rethought visual vocabulary. It’s amazing work, I”m super proud of it and the team that’s in the trench right now.

The other one that’s cool is one we haven’t really launched publicly yet, but we’re thinking a lot about what a reimagined kind of radio experience would feel like — taking some of the best of on-demand pieces that we know and love from services like Rdio and Spotify and Pandora and thinking about how public radio fits into that picture. So a lot of experiments that we’re taking small steps with. It’ll make me sad to not really be as involved with those anymore.

O’Donovan: The last couple years, you’ve spoken a lot about how you think about design and the fact that it’s different from storytelling. Can you talk a little about how — and I know it’s obviously been a dynamic experience — how your philosophy there has changed over time and if there are any big elements of it that have changed since you started?
Wright: I think that obviously the more that I’ve worked with what has become here, over the time that I’ve worked at NPR, the product team has really become a — I thought we were pretty high performing when I got here, but the kind of talent that we’ve been able to add to the team, and the methods and the processes that we use to create digital products has become more and more refined over time. I think that it’s fair to say that any of my thoughts that I’ve shared publicly are certainly the synthesis of my ideas, but they’re so greatly informed by the amazing people that I’ve worked with here.

So I think as we’ve gotten better at making stuff, my thoughts and how we could refine the process has really gotten a bit more sharp. But I think what’s most fascinating, and maybe what I’m most proud of leaving this building, is to be able to look back and see what an important part design has been able to play in the making of products here. I think it’s easy for lots of people to recognize that it is an important ingredient, but sometimes it’s hard to get an organization to understand why that is, and I’m really fortunate to have had a lot of really willing people here at NPR who’ve heard that message and have really embraced it. I think that’s changed a lot as we’ve sort of matured on our own, and our own understanding of what makes good products, we’ve really been able to convince a lot of folks here that design is really at the core of helping us figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them and most importantly how to solve them well.

O’Donovan: One of the questions I had for you was: How do you explain to management or people who are really editorially focused the importance of design? You’ve said that it’s the number one problem journalism is facing. Do you still feel that way? And for people who are struggling to make that clear, how would you advise them?
Wright: I think without calling out any specific products that are out there, I think we can all say that we’ve used and experienced journalism on platforms and in different situations that were less than satisfying, and I think just being pretty unbiased about what we think makes a good experience and what we think makes a great experience and what we think makes a terrible experience. They’re easy cases to show. Do we want to be more like this, or do we want to be like this? Nobody argues with the fact that everybody wants to create a good experience, but I think the most important thing that we as design thinkers can do is help explain how design is not really something that is an option.

If you want to create a good product, it can’t be a condition — it has to be something that is an absolute. You must include it, in order to create efficiencies, in your process, and make things that are fantastic and meaningful to people and beautiful and useful. It’s really about calling out these examples and saying: Here’s a perfect case where work design was involved from the beginning and it made this product better. And whether you’re editorial, or you’re a manager or a coder or a designer, you can look at those and from a pretty unbiased point of view say, Yes, you’re right, that’s better because design was involved.

O’Donovan: So, and you can explain to me the extent to which this is accurate, but assuming that you’re taking a step away from designing for news, as you look farther down the road, for people who are still in it, what are the next major hurdles? If you were still working for NPR, what would be the next areas you wanted to tackle?
Wright: I think NPR is a bit of an interesting animal, only because the kind of content that we deal with is a little bit different given how audio-centric much of what we do is. But I think it’s going to be really interesting for organizations who are wrestling with really getting their content to appear how they want to on many different platforms. I think that’s crucial. If a news organization is really not thinking beyond — I’m stating the obvious here  — if a news organization is not thinking beyond the desktop browser, I think that’s going to become much more problematic in the next coming years.

We’ve been really good at building stories and trying to express what I like to call editorial intention in what viewport size on the desktop. We can go to any one of our home pages, anybody in the news business, you can go to a homepage when it’s a papal conclave story or a Boston marathon or an election night, we know those patterns and we’re good at them. We can reflect them well on the desktop.

I think we have a harder time thinking about how to take what editors can do, what news professionals do, how they express themselves in other places, and separating them from the desktop page. So figuring out ways — news professionals need to express hierarchy and importance of stories and that this one is louder than this one — figuring out ways to make sure that works everywhere, I think is going to be a really big challenge for a lot of organizations, but a very important one to solve.

O’Donovan: You said at one point, I think, that you expected to see NPR rather quickly have a larger audience on mobile than they did for desktop. How close are you to that?
Wright: I think, as far as numbers go, we’re not there yet. But a little bit of that is from the hip and it will be interesting to see if history agrees with my proclamation there. I think there are actually more and more organizations who are being, and I can’t really name any off the top of my head, that have definitely read anecdotally about how mobile traffic is something that is catching up for everyone a lot faster than anyone really would have thought. There’s really no surprise in that. I think that should really be expected. If anyone’s paying any attention to any of our competitors in this space, which they all should be, that’s not a big surprise.

But yeah, I think we’re close — I think that every month we’re really seeing traffic growth across the board and most of our platforms and, on the desktop for sure it’s incremental, but it’s really quite a bit more pronounced on the mobile web for us. And I think it can only continue, given the number of devices and potential people that we can reach.

O’Donovan: You mentioned how NPR has a unique situation because of being predominantly audio focused. But I’ve heard from at least a handful of people that there are people out there who really think that it’s going to become a much more important part of everyone’s strategy, in the same way that we talk about video. But there are definitely people who say that audio will become increasingly important. Do you think that there are in your mind any big design takeaways that people who might be looking to get more into the audio game would want to know about?
Wright: Yeah! I think that. I would certainly not claim that NPR has solved every problem in this space, and in fact, I think if you asked a lot of people here, we still have some pretty major problems to solve in terms of how we distribute audio effectively.

I think that SoundCloud is doing a great job of creating some really interesting innovations in the space. Anybody could look at them and say that seems like a really solid platform for audio distribution. I think, for us, the most important thing is to think about why — the distribution could be anybody’s game and I think that, especially for organizations who aren’t very well resourced, nobody wants to. Just like we don’t all want to rebuild the exact same CMS at great expense and very little gain, I don’t know that everybody just wants to invest in building audio delivery platforms.

But I would say that I think it’s so important ot understand why people gravitate toward audio, the same way they gravitate toward video or photography. What is the recipe, or the formula, that goes into creating compelling audio that matters? I think it has much less to do with design of the experience right now and much more to do with what makes great audio great audio. I think we’ve all been fans of podcasts that are amazing, and there are certainly lots and lots of things not produced by a public radio community that are amazing and that we love. There are lots of things that public radio creates that are amazing and we love. But that has a whole lot more to do with the content than the presentation and delivery. There’s lots of room for innovation there. My best advice to anybody who wanted to get into that game, is to really think a lot about why people love it.

O’Donovan: I was looking over some presentations you’ve given in the past, and one of the things that you emphasize is that, while you haven’t served as a storyteller or journalist at NPR, you have taken away from working around journalists not only the importance but the ease with which it is possible to ask questions and get out there and talk to people about the things you want to know about. So I want to move into talking about your next step at Twitter, and how you see that playing into the rest of your career.
Wright: Anybody who wants to be successful at making products has to be able to draw on all of the places where we are when we’re making things. Often the most important person whose voice is the most important part of your team is the user. We have a lot of really great ethnologists and design thinkers and people who are creating content, but the people who are consuming it are often absent from that conversation. So it’s less about “is this a good idea” or not. I think it’s almost always a good idea at some stage in the process to really incorporate users and listeners into what w’ere making.

Journalists, if they’re not doing it, they should be, because they’re already really good at that. They’re good at talking to people and asking hard questions and figuring out how to get somebody to say something meaningful, even if it’s hard to coax it out of them. It’s a natural fit. So if you’re trying to convince journalists and news organizations that talking to people about what you make is a good idea, it’s easy to tell them by saying, you’ve already done this. You already do this.

As far as the next phase in my career, I’ve fortunately had the great pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with some really amazing journalists and some really amazing storytellers and some really great reporters, and people who know how to chase stories, and I think I’ll always feel in some way like I’d like to try to harness what I’ve witnessed, a lot of what these talented people do. In my own practice, whether it’s outside of a newsroom or in newsroom, I’d always like to channel that as best I can.

You know, What would David Gilkey do in this scenario? He wouldn’t be shy about approaching this curmudgeonly user? No, he wouldn’t.

O’Donovan: How do you approach the curmudgeonly user? How do you go about getting that opinion?
Wright: At NPR — there’s a million ways that organizations do it, but at NPR we use a mix of what I might really consider three major kinds of audience feedback.

The first one is really kind of faceless and it’s field surveys. We do this the most infrequently, but basically we’ll say we really need to get a handle right now on how we think people are consuming digital news of this sort. We’ll put together a fairly lengthy survey and field it with the understanding that by the time we process the results, they’ll already be a little bit dated. But it gives us a really good snapshot of the time of how many people really listen to NPR, how many people are looking at news sites, how many people are reading newspapers, how many people are watching TV news — getting demographic information about that. We do that pretty infrequently, but it gives us pretty low resolution blocks of people we need to be thinking about and it helps us figure out where opportunities are.

The second kind of testing or conversation that we have really has to do with our ability to have long-term conversations with people about stuff that we make. So existing users of products — we have opportunities that are much more regular than large surveys — opportunities to reach out to people that are on our listener panel, or other people that we can intercept or make callouts in social media and say, “Take five minutes and tell us what you think of this particular feature.” We can ask questions that way. It certainly puts more of a face on things and we can get very specific about product features.

And then the most specific thing we try to do is actually bring real life users into our world and sit down with them and lead them through testing that says, “Hey, we made this thing, it’s kind of half baked, and we want you to use it and tell us what you think about it.” Pretty standard user testing.

O’Donovan: I do want to talk about what’s coming up for you. How much do you know about what you’re doing there, what are you really excited about, what do you hope to see come out of it?
Wright: I wish that I had a lot more information — well, no, I’m fine having a vague sense of what’s going on, but, you know, we know what Twitter is and what Twitter does and it was really exciting for me to be able to visit with that team and learn about the kinds of things that they’re tackling and the things they’ve built and some of the plans they have for the future.

To the extent that I can be specific about what I’ll be working on, what I do know is that I’ll be focused at first on a platform team. I’ll be working with the Twitter for websites team, figuring out interesting ways to make Twitter appear in more places than it does today. The thing that I think I’m most excited about is that I feel like I work with a very talented team at NPR and I know it will be true about the team I’ll be working with at Twitter — just a lot of really smart people that, as a designer, I’ve just really respected and followed a lot in my design career.

To have so many of those people — like Doug Bowman and Mike Davidson, founder of Newsvine — just really smart, smart thinkers who, like I said, are respected web design heroes of mine. I’m really excited to be able to go and solve problems with them, to get up in the morning and go to work and try to figure out how to make Twitter better, which is great. I think that the other part that is a huge selling point for me is, there’s lots of reasons that my family wanted to get to California and be there and be a part of the amazing community that’s happening, and the amazing design community that is part and parcel of the Bay Area.

But for me to leave news is hard. It’s really hard. But what’s interesting is that while I feel like I’ll be leaving journalism, going to work at Twitter, I don’t have to squint very hard to see how involved I still will be in news. I think it’s a really fascinating platform for me to be able, as a user and an observer and a guy who spent a lot of time in newsrooms, who watch what I think this platform could do.

O’Donovan: In the future, how do you see people, specifically journalists but also more broadly, using Twitter differently than they do now? What would you like to build for, for what kind of usage?
Wright: That’s something I’m really looking forward to learning more about as a person on the inside, because I think that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with folks there about what they’re trying to build and what they need help building, I still don’t think I have a full enough picture to really know what is even in the realm of possibility. I have lots of sort of fantastic dreams about what could happen, what sort of the Twitter-on-steroids might look like — and maybe even a simpler version of Twitter. I think there are many things. It’s probably too much for me to speculate right now.
O’Donovan: Well, give us one fantasy. What’s the craziest Twitter-on-steroids fantasy?
Wright: Wow.

I think that there’s something fascinating to me about the range of information that you can get from Twitter. We often talk a lot at NPR about making sure that people get their vegetables and also get really delicious pieces of candy that we can distribute through the radio. What I love about Twitter is that, in a combined stream, I can see this heartbreaking story or updates from people who are literally fighting for their lives in Egypt as they are in the midst of the revolution, and then, you know, followed by an update from somebody who’s, you know, explaining how hungover they are because they were at their favorite bar. I think that, as a medium, like, what else does that? That is never part of the presentation that happens on our broadcast news.

This is certainly not a Twitter-on-steroids idea, but, in terms of being able to harness the ability for people be able to narrowcast to them in really specific ways, I think has such a reach potential. That my mom can find value in that, in a way that manifests itself very differently from the way that I would, but we can find the same value out of it with very different content. I think that the challenge of kind of wrestling with: How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content? That’s a fascinating problem to solve, and I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and give it a go.

O’Donovan: Was it you who was tweeting about explaining Twitter to your grandmother recently?
Wright: It was. Absolutely it was. I believe the thing I said after that was if she gets sudden onset dementia, I’m going to feel partially responsible.

Yeah, the thing that’s cool though, is, her story is great. She was a telephone operator back in the day, where, we’ve all seen the photos of people plugging all the lines into one of the boards. One of my favorite stories that she told me was she was manning a board the night that it was V-E Day, and as soon as the word got to the United States via the phones, that victory in Europe had happened, she said the board lit up!

So I was trying to tell her: This is what we do now. We don’t use phones anymore — this is what we do. The fact that Twitter would blow up with this information is how we know it. She said, “I think I understand.” I said, “All right, well, it’s the same thing.”

O’Donovan: I guess it’s not altogether entirely undigestible.
Wright: Yeah, there was part of it she thought was pretty cool.
O’Donovan: We talked a little bit at the beginning about designing for audio, and I’d be curious to know if you think those skills will come into play.
Wright: We haven’t talked specifically about audio, but we had a lot of really great conversations about the experiences that I’ve had designing for news organizations and bringing with me information about how publishers specifically are using lots of different tools, Twitter included.

I’ve built really — I wouldn’t call them large muscles, I’d call them interesting muscles over the last 12 years, thinking a lot about these problems. I think it would be really hard for me to not apply some of those skills. It’s become such a part of my DNA that I’m interested in seeing, How do those skills fit and work? How are those patterns applied out of a newsroom?

O’Donovan: I would imagine you also bring some insight about what publishers want or what they think they want from ads. I don’t know if you have thoughts about Twitter’s different advertising strategies lately, but you’ve said in the past that you think publishers need to be thinking really differently about advertising.
Wright: What I said in my conversations with people at Twitter was, if you’re looking for a client services manager to go to newsrooms and write down the requirements of what would make Twitter great on news websites — I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the things news organizations aren’t doing as well as I wish they were, or things I wish they were doing differently — but I was pretty clear that I might not be the best guy to come in and take those kinds of requirements down.

So I’ve been critical about some of the things publishers have done and ads are chief among them. I think display advertising as we know it is in many cases a race to the bottom and is in many ways unsustainable. What I’m excited to learn more about is advertising models that are so native to the platform — and Twitter is a good example of that, I think the best is obviously Google’s AdWords, AdSense — and just feel like part of the experience. I won’t have a ton of good things to bring along with me from the point of view of what I think digital news design is doing in general. I think it will be more of the other way around, where I eventually might be able to bring some of the information and things I’ve learned working with a company like Twitter to help publishers figure out how to think differently about how they’re doing things. I expect it might go the other way.

O’Donovan: So, let’s say you’re leaving NPR and the whole news world throws you a party. And they say, What’s the one thing we can do for you while you’re gone? What would you want them to do?
Wright: Oh! This is easy. My one wish is for every news org, to really understand the importance of having — it doesn’t have to be a visual designer, but to have design thinkers have a seat at the table. It’s not about deciding what work gets done or how it gets done but it’s really about making design as important an ingredient in what we make as editorial, as reporters, writers, photographers, and technologists. Designers bring such a unique value to the table and can just help solve so many interesting problems in really thoughtful ways. The best presents the news community could give me is to say, Everybody, designers are always at the table.

Photo by Casey Capachi via the ONA.

POSTED     June 17, 2013, 5:48 a.m.
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