What It Means to Design for Growth at The New York Times

A conversation with two Times product designers about their jobs, user testing and working with cross-functional teams.

Illustrations by Nan Lee

In November of last year, The New York Times announced that it had surpassed a lofty goal: to have four million paid subscribers. Achieving that goal is the result of a strategy to shift the company away from relying on advertising dollars to being sustained by subscribers. Driving that growth is a team — known within the company as the Growth Mission — that is made up of people from audience research, brand, data, design, marketing, product and technology.

It isn’t enough to put up a paywall and a place to input credit card information, there needs to be a product and design strategy driving the subscription experience, too. It’s a big job that often requires thinking about the needs of the user, while also working towards business goals. No one knows that challenge better than product designers Asiya Yakhina and Nana Marín, who are embedded in the Growth Mission and work on the pay flow, the registration process and the onboarding experience for new subscribers.

I talked to Yakhina and Marín about what it means to design for growth, how they use testing to inform their design decisions and how they work with cross-functional teams. –– SARAH BURES

Sarah Bures I’d like to start by asking you to explain your jobs. What do you do?

Nana Marín I am part of the Growth Mission and my focus is optimizing the registration process and the subscription flow. So, that’s everything from the landing page with the subscription options through the sign-up form and the payment flow.

Asiya Yakhina I’m also a product designer under the Growth Mission, except I focus on onboarding the user after they subscribe or create an account. The onboarding experience could be a set of initial set-up steps, or contextual messages explaining how to use certain features on the site.

SB What is your main focus?

NM I’d say that my team’s main focus is explaining to users why we want them to subscribe. It’s not just about making money, it’s about funding journalism. Sometimes that gets a little lost, so it’s our job to always have that in mind and push that information out.

AY From the onboarding standpoint, our focus is to help readers find ways of extracting value from our product. The user might create an account or subscribe for many different reasons, but they will only come back to us if they found some value in using the product. On the onboarding team, we think about how to make that happen, how to nudge the reader towards building a meaningful habit of reading The Times.

SB How would you say growth design is different from regular product design?

NM In my previous roles at other companies I had to be a jack of all trades and work on different parts of the customer journey, but this is the first time that I get to be laser focused on just two sections of that journey. The benefit of getting to be so focused is that you realize you can come at the problem from different angles. I find it really challenging and exciting to be able to have such clearly defined objectives.

AY The way I see it, the “growth” part means that there is a clear business objective that needs to be solved for; in our case it’s growing our subscriber base. The “product design” part of it means that we get creative about solving that problem. It also means that, as designers, we think carefully about how the solution will meet an existing user need. That’s why we often operate in this tight space where business and user needs are at slight odds with each other. A lot of testing and experimenting is needed to land on a solution that meets both.

SB: That sounds tricky. How do you reconcile the business needs and user needs to create a user-centered design?

AY: Let’s take an example of our onboarding experience for readers who just subscribed. It’s in the interest of the business to encourage a new subscriber to sign up for newsletters because it will help them establish a habit of reading The Times regularly. And here we are likely to encounter two scenarios. In one scenario, the new subscriber welcomes the opportunity to sign up for newsletters because they see how it will help them stay on top of the news they care about. In another scenario, the new subscriber just paid for their subscription to unlock a story that was behind the paywall and likely wants to return to the story right after the purchase.

How do we get the user in the second scenario to check out our newsletters, while also acknowledging their desire to continue reading? We present them with a screen that shows some newsletters they might subscribe to, but we’ll give them a clear option to skip this step. We’ll also do our best to communicate the value of signing up for newsletters and make it clear that this quick distraction will be worth it in the long run.

A step in the onboarding process that invites users to subscribe to newsletters.

SB What is it like working on a cross-functional team?

NM It means that we’re constantly talking to product managers, developers, copywriters, data analysts and other designers. With any project, I try to bring in developers early on. For example, say, I’m working on a new project and maybe I don’t quite understand it or I have questions; I’ll do some research, and then put together some user flows and wireframes. Then I’ll show it to the developers to make sure we’re on the same page.

AY Agreed. We share the project and the deliverables with people in multiple roles — and it’s best to collaborate early and often for best results. Before I jump into design exploration, I want to be aware of technical constraints, testing requirements, and have the copy-writer from brand weigh in on what this experience could sound like. With all these pieces in place, it’s easier for me to come up with an informed design decision, and avoid last-minute workarounds because some constraint wasn’t accounted for. It’s pretty great to see early collaboration pay off in the long run — and it always does.

Illustration by Nan Lee

SB Earlier you were talking about testing. What are the types of tests you do?

NM I’ve never worked at a company that does testing or user testing sprints the way the team does them here and I just think it’s great. Basically, you talk to a member of the qualitative testing team and you kick off, say, on Monday, your prototype is ready Tuesday, a discussion guide is written Wednesday, then Thursday you’re in user testing all day and then Friday to Monday you start getting results. It’s so quick; It’s kind of crazy.

AY I find qualitative tests very useful because they often become a source of great directional feedback. As we listen to users’ reactions to our design provocations, we find new ideas to try out. Those ideas are later incorporated into bigger tests that will bring more definitive quantitative learnings.

SB So, the qualitative tests are user interviews; what types of quantitative tests do you run?

AY Most are A/B or multivariate tests, where we measure the effectiveness of two or more different solutions against each other. Quickly seeing how a user engages with a new feature tells us how effective a given solution is — and it shows how that affects their behavior in the long run. To continue with the newsletter example, if we launch an experience that lets new subscribers sign up for newsletters, we’ll look out for two metrics: how many newsletters a user signs up for and, as a result, how often they come back and read us, in the long term.

SB How do you incorporate lessons from the tests back into the design process?

NM It varies depending on the test. For example, let’s say we were testing three copy variants on the subscription landing page and more people clicked on one option. Then we can gauge that maybe this copy variant worked the best because more people clicked on it, so we test it a little further which might lead to other designs or other tests. But sometimes it’s a little trickier to gauge what the winner is.

SB How do you make decisions in those tricky situations?

NM Maybe more testing or advocate for a redesign. For example, let’s say we are testing form fields in the payment flow and we see that the numbers are flat, regardless. But we know that a redesign of the form field is important for accessibility reasons. We’ll just say that even though the numbers are flat, we know the form should be accessible, so let’s proceed with a redesign.

The team redesigned the log in page to include a high contrast, black button; The label text for the form fields was placed above each field so they are accessible for screen readers.

SB: Have you ever been surprised by the results from quantitative testing?

NM: Yes, we used to include text that said, “You can cancel anytime” in a prominent place at the top of the subscription landing page. We tested decreasing the prominence of the copy and moved it below the purchase buttons to see if it could reassure a user at the decision making moment.

While we wanted the new test variant to perform positively, we were surprised that it dramatically out performed the control landing page. It’s an example of how empathizing with a user’s mindset and potential anxiety towards purchase commitment can result in a win-win experience that meets the needs of both the business and the user.

SB Do you usually drive what you design next or is it a team decision?

NM A little bit of both. Because we could have some ideas and then it’s pretty open for us to talk to the product manager and pursue it. Or sometimes a product manager will have it. I work very closely with the product managers, so it’s all kind of symbiotic in that respect.

SB As you look to the future, what are you really excited about with your jobs?

NM I’m excited about how open everyone seems to be about redesigning things. The New York Times has been around for so long that I thought it might be a little trickier than it is to redesign anything and there is a lot of opportunity for that. So, it’s pretty fun.

AY What excites me is the unique challenge of the work I do and the consequent opportunity to learn and grow as a designer. The experiences I create are often inserted in moments when the user doesn’t necessarily expect them or want to interact with them because they’re trying to do something else (like, read a story). This means that sometimes I sit through user testing sessions filled with unimpressed reactions, like “I usually skip these screens.” But hey, that builds a humble but sturdy designer character. It also reveals blind spots in my thinking and challenges the assumptions that were made. And whenever that happens, I learn something new and get a chance to find a better and a more informed solution to a given problem.


What It Means to Design for Growth at The New York Times was originally published in Times Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: New York Times

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