How Design-Led Publishers Break Through The Clutter

From websites to blogs to social media, anyone with an idea has the ability to instantly express it to a worldwide audience—making it harder for traditional M&E brands to stand out.

How Design-Led Publishers Break Through The Clutter

by Giselle Abramovich

Posted on 08-10-2017

This article is part of’s September series on the state of media and entertainment. Click here for more.

“If you want to be a writer, write.”

Greek philosopher Epictetus, born 55 A.D., couldn’t have possibly imagined the implications of his words in today’s digital world. From websites to blogs to social media, anyone with an idea has the ability to instantly express it to a worldwide audience.

As a result, we’re experiencing the democratization of publishing, making it harder for traditional media and entertainment brands to stand out.

One methodology that’s gaining traction: design thinking. Design thinking requires a deep knowledge about the needs, problems, and expectations of your customers, and then how to solve and meet them. Its principles including testing and iteration to perfect customer experiences are part of the process.

“You can’t be a design-led company and not have your customer front and center,” said Maribel Perez-Wadsworth, SVP and chief transformation officer at Gannett. “I mean down to interviewing your customers–really spending time with them in their environments–to understand how they use your products and services and understand both where the gaps are and where the friction points exist.”

According to Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe and former design director of The New York Times, design-led publishers look at every problem from a user’s perspective and then engineer their products or services toward the desired experience.

Additionally, design-led publishers place designers in leadership roles–executives who are peers to the engineering, marketing, and other business-side disciplines, he said.

“I think it also [requires] a culture that celebrates iteration and failure and fighting your way to success, rather than demanding that every effort produces immediate results,” Vinh said. “Design-led cultures understand that finding the right solutions for customers always takes repeated trial and error and persistence.”

Allrecipes’ Focus On Data For Fluidity

Indeed, an Adobe study from earlier this year found that design-led companies share three attributes: They consciously put the customer first, test ideas with their customers, and involve their designers in shaping the CX strategy.

Meredith Corp.-owned is one such company. Like Vinh and Perez-Wadsworth, Esmee Williams,’s VP of consumer and brand strategy, believes design thinking is all about delivering a good consumer experience. For her, that has meant a deep look at why consumers are looking to engage with the brand at any given time.

“You’ve got to have that context in understanding why people are consuming your content,” Williams said. “For us, sometimes they’re just trying to get ideas and inspiration when they have a few moments of time free in their day. At other times, it’s very much the time of need—it’s 4:30 p.m.–and they’re trying to come up with a plan for that night’s dinner. When we’re thinking about design, we’re thinking about how to leverage all pieces of the consumer experience together in a way that’s really cohesive.”

The Allrecipes web experience offers users personalized recommendations.

Allrecipes’ design-led strategy focuses on usability and creating fluid engagement with content, she said. Designers from its user experience team are involved very early on in the ideation process. Together with their counterparts throughout the organization, they consider all the ways in which a consumer might be engaging–i.e., the device, their location, etc.–in order to tailor the amount of information that is seen or received.

“Oftentimes we do A/B testing, so we’ll reveal the new user experience design out to a subset of our total audience. If it performs better than the control, then we will push it out to the entire audience,” Williams said. “We’re using Adobe Analytics to measure performance of that change over time, and make optimizations as we go.”

From there, a user experience lead and team participate in every facet of product design. Allrecipes works with ForeSee for user satisfaction testing and feedback, and has found that exit surveys are quite helpful for identifying where customer experiences hum or falter.

According to Williams, any design-led business, especially in digital publishing, should not just be thinking about developing new features but also be spending a lot of time polishing existing the ones they have to produce the right experience.

USA Today Innovation Lab

Design thinking is also front and center at Gannett’s USA Today. The brand’s innovation lab, launch a few years back, has been tasked with evolving the company’s behaviors and culture into a customer-first mind-set, Perez-Wadsworth said.

The result: Human-centered design has become the core foundation of everything USA Today does.

The lab’s “User Experience Boot Camp” has gone a long way in instilling design-led thinking among its employees. In addition to a video curriculum for all employees, the lab offers in-person design-thinking training sessions for those who require the methodology at the forefront of how they work. That includes those involved with technology, marketing, products, and content. According to Perez-Wadsworth, USA Today has been able to not just improve customer-facing products and services, but it has also been able to uncover frictions and improve internal processes.

Employees involved in the relaunch of USA Today’s mobile website certainly applied their boot camp learnings to the project. The redesign process began with insights from customers directly, followed by a disciplined, test, learn, and iterate methodology. The mobile site was rolled out to just 5% of the audience for insights around what is and isn’t working.


“Our goal was to really understand how things are performing, understand what kind of feedback we’re getting, and understand the ways in which the user is flowing through our content,” Perez-Wadsworth said. “We made iterations from there. Over the course of several weeks, we had development cycle after development cycle making tweaks based on what we saw in the customer behavior and what we were hearing in more concrete feedback through user testing.”

Another good example of the company’s use of design thinking is USA Today’s internal innovation challenge program, which is meant to stimulate entrepreneurship within the organization, Perez-Wadsworth said. One of the teams came up with the idea of creating an app that helps hungry travelers find places to eat. But after interviewing people at rest stops, they found the real need was less about just finding a place to eat and more about finding healthy, unique options.

“The end result is a new product called Destinate, which is currently in beta,” Perez-Wadsworth said. “It uses chat engine technology to find the most unique places that may be a little bit off the beaten path but will give a more unique experience and potentially a healthier experience than if you just made your first exit off the highway. We’re seeing a really good response.”

What This All Means

The hardest part for design-minded publishers is the transition from a principally editorial, content-oriented organization to one that is product- and services-oriented, Adobe’s Vinh said.

“In news, especially, the editorial perspective drove everything, and because such a premium has been rightfully placed on having this wall between editorial and business in these organizations, changing that focus is imperative, but it’s really difficult,” he said.

Of prime importance: striking a balance among understanding what the market needs, what your customers want, and engineering your products and services to drive the business needs, all while protecting the integrity of the core content, Vinh added.

That’s where data can help, enabling publishers to monitor the health of what they’re putting out into the market and get feedback in close to real time.

“Just make sure that data is integrated within the culture of the organization in a really healthy way,” Vinh said. “That means working hard to make the data consumable and friendly for your own employees–the people creating content, as well the marketers and engineers. This ensures that everybody has a common understanding of what pieces of data are most important.”

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