The internet has been around long enough for audiences to expect a personal connection with the media they interact with. Many columnists and news personalities have quickly adapted to these new expectations. But news organizations have struggled to adequately capture and incorporate audience feedback at scale. Consider how readers, viewers, and listeners have historically had limited avenues for sharing their feedback through inbound methods like letters to the editor, customer support calls and @ replies.
Now more news brands like the BBC, BuzzFeed, and ProPublica are being proactive in learning about audiences’ experiences and unmet needs through user research experiments. Product and business people at companies like Facebook and Spotify are already finding major value in these audience insights approaches, and it will benefit more publishers to do the same.
User research is about becoming fascinated with your audiences, through tools including interviews, surveys, observation, usability testing, and co-design techniques. As a consumer subscription-first business, engaged regular readership is critical for The New York Times. We use user research to understand our audience members’ lives and what we can best offer them: news, analysis, entertainment, and even offerings that haven’t previously existed.
It’s helped us empathize with and design for people who want to get caught up on a breaking-news event 36 hours in; travelers who want to access recommendations for a city when they’re offline abroad; and presidential voters who want quick context on topics mid-debate. My colleagues also use these approaches for new product and international projects, among others.
My prediction — indeed, my hope — is that improvements informed by user insights can help offer financial stability for media organizations. How? Existing audiences who feel that their experiences are seriously considered are more likely to remain engaged and, where relevant, pay to subscribe. Second, digital and print story experiences that put users at the center have more deeply engaged audiences and are shared more often.
Imagine a near future in which editors across organizations will improve news experiences and story presentations by pairing qualitative intel with data analytics. This intelligence currently mostly informs tactical changes (such as specific stories and forms), but soon I think it will be used as background for more strategic changes (what areas to cover and how).
Listening to your audiences can start small. When Monica Guzman was a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she held a regular call for readers to join her after work at a local coffeeshop to tell her what was on their minds and to learn about their news interactions. The effort was less about soliciting story ideas and more about really hearing from and connecting with readers. This inquisitiveness coupled with research best practices is a powerful pair — and one that journalism and design are uniquely well positioned to pull off with some resource investment.
Know that the opportunity to understand consumers’ behaviors and attitudes isn’t intended to override editorial judgment or dictate choices to appease upset readers. Instead, it offers powerful guidance that can inform designs and decision-making, next year and beyond.
I remain optimistic for the journalism business. As more people around the world get internet access, the need for high quality, trustworthy, without-fear-or-favor style journalism will grow. And it’s on us to understand how to provide that journalism in the best ways possible.
Emily Goligoski is a user experience research lead for The New York Times newsroom.