What the New York Times redesign can teach us about work management

Whether we are reading our daily newspaper online, or logging into our company work management solution to catch up on what others are doing, many of the same questions about presentation of content and the user experience of context participants prevail.

This past week, the New York Times launched a significant but somewhat timid redesign that has drawn a fair amount of criticism, and a few boosters.

My biggest personal headache is that the redesign has blurred the notion of what was published today, and what is older material, which was fairly clear cut, but implicit in the previous design. Jeff Jarvis seems to think breaking free of  the notion of pages is a positive — I  certainly have never liked the way that the Times and other sites artificially break stories into multiple ‘pages’ that you must click on navigation devices to scroll across. Although the old Times has a ‘single page’ option there was no way to toggle it as a default.

Mathew Ingram, my colleague at GigaOM, has done a good job of listing the various things that might have been done, but weren’t, like personalization, and community. The best paper for me might look very different than Mathew’s, where I would like to see Paul Krugman, the Editorial Board, and technology and economics stories topmost, and David Brooks and Tom Friedman put in the distant background, with just a link to their stories.

Worst of all, The Times retreated from social a few years ago, and has never ventured back.

Mathew Ingram, The New York Times website redesign is great, as far as it goes — which isn’t very far

Community: The New York Times has such a wealth of engagement potential with its hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and yet it does virtually nothing to encourage that to occur out in the open. The late, lamented Times People social network may not have worked, but it was on the right track I think — as a way of encouraging readers to connect with like-minded individuals and explore related interests. Comments on stories, which could be a potential entry point to such a network, are now hidden and can only be revealed with a click, which has the effect of smothering potential discussion even further.

Clicking on the link that Mathew brought me to an article by Dave Copeland from August 2011, writing about the closing of that service, and I ran right into…. myself. Apparently I was the first person to realize the service was no more, and I wrote about it. Here’s Copeland:

“We apologize for the inconvenience, however, we are no longer supporting TimesPeople and are in the process of fully removing it from NYTimes.com,” wrote Andrew Smith, a New York Times customer service representative, in an email to Stowe Boyd, the blogger who first reported the discontinuation of the service on Tuesday.

The end of Times People comes just two months after Jill Abramson took over as the newspaper’s executive editor. Abramson spent the year before her appointment immersed in the paper’s digital operations as managing editor and has widely been seen as the leader of the venerable print publication’s expansion into digital media.

After her appointment to the executive editor position, Times insiders showered her with praise on Twitter.

At the time, Jennifer Preston, former Times social media editor, tweeted, “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.” She later added, “Jill has always been highly supportive of our real-time Twitter publishing/curation efforts.”

At the time, however, Abramson had not started her own Twitter account. (She now has one.)

Abramson did not respond to an email request for comment Wednesday morning. Even as Smith said the feature was being removed from the website, a Google search for “TimesPeople” turned up a page on the site urging readers to “join TimesPeople.”

In his blog post, Boyd said he had more than 1,000 followers on Times People. He could no longer access his posts, contacts, and other data.

“By the way, major news services. If you launch something like this to great fanfare (or even small fanfare) it makes sense to make some noise when you shut the service down, tell people why, share the stats, and the thinking about your decision,” Boyd said in a post that was quickly shared by journalists and readers on Twitter.

So, a few take aways for the business analogue of this:

  1. Companies nowadays general have systems in place that allow people to share information, comment on it, and publish information that others want and need to get their jobs done. If you plan changes, let people know what they are in advance: no surprises. Discovering Times People had simply been shut down was amazingly annoying to me, and probably to other dedicated readers.
  2. Work hard to make user experience personal. While the NY Times may feel that they know better than its readers as to what should be topmost on the front page, they are wrong on several levels. People should be in control of what they want to see and in what order. Yes, I might also like to see what the editors think, but it’s not the primary view for me. As Mathew says, “Personalization is one of the things that could theoretically make subscribers even more devoted to the newspaper, and could be one of those perks that members get when they pay.” In the business setting, personalization is just good sense, because people work better when they can configure things the way they want.
  3. The wisdom of the crowds lurks within the stats, potentially providing a new dimension of insight into stories. As Mathew said,

    Ideally, I would like a newspaper — especially one that I pay money for — to know a lot more about me than the New York Times seems to, and to cater to me in some tangible way, either by showing me things it knows (or thinks) I might be interested in, or by giving me access to tools that allow me to do so. For my part, I would like three versions of the “home” page: one that shows me what editors think are the important stories, one that gives me a personal version, and one that shows me an amalgamation of all the other readers’ versions of what’s important.

    The equivalent in the business context would be better ways to aggregate analytics to get different perspectives of what’s being said and shared across the company’s work management platform, or platforms.

I hope that the NY Times is going to assimilate all the feedback they are getting, and most importantly, I hope they get up the nerve to take another pass at the social angle. I’ll give them another chance, even though they broke my heart in 2011.