Detailed discussion of NPR re-design process

I’m a big believer in sharing stories about success, failures and even things that are in process. No one has the corner on good ideas, and often opening up the process can help get a wider view. No one has a perfect process, and often, we’re dealing with similar issues. It can feel a bit like the corporate version of group therapy, but it can be very useful, if for no other reason as a means of catharsis. Unfortunately, this happens rarely because most people maintain a relatively narrow view of competitive advantage.

Fortunately, AIGA, a professional design association, has written a detailed overview about the National Public Radio site redesign process. It’s invaluable for anyone looking to redesign and re-architect a news website. It speaks to goals, thinking and process.

They worked with Schematic to “provide the initial visual design and information architecture”. (Disclosure: Suw and I are friends with Dale Herigstad, the chief creative officer of Schematic and Jason Brush, the EVP of User Experience Design with the company. We’ve had the good fortune of swapping ideas with them over dinner, or in Jason’s case, also over blueberry pancakes before I started my US election trip last autumn.)

This post steps you through the entire process from goals to completion. Like many sites, NPR was working with a 6-yeard-old content management system and wanted to update the CMS and the design. My employer, the Guardian, did something similar recently.

One of the things I noticed from the write-up:

(NPR) had two editorial producers embedded in our group for the duration of the project. Their feedback was invaluable in helping us design a system that met the needs of our news teams.

I think this is important, but I would also suggest that journalists are involved in any process to choose or develop a CMS. As an online journalist for more than a decade, the CMS is either the enabler or the roadblock to efficient work. One of the reasons that I’ve been a big advocate of blogging tools is that they are faster and easier not just for the technically proficient but also for the novice. If your CMS trims even just 10 minutes off of every story a journalist writes or produces, that adds up to days over the course of a year. Clumsy tools take time away from creating compelling stories.

NPR also shifted to an Agile development process. That is a major challenge, and we at the Guardian also use Agile. I’m not going to go into the details of Agile here, but Suw and I have long thought that Agile is good for platform level projects like site redesign but not best suited for day-to-day editorial development.

However, in this review, I’d highlight one of the lessons NPR learned that relates not simply to Agile development but to wider issues of major projects like a site redesign:

Each one of us also had to be open-minded and empathetic. When conflicts arose over how best to solve a problem, it was imperative to remember that in the end, we were all working toward the same goal.

The article is well worth reading and digesting. I’m sure that people who have been through this process will see quite a few points they recognise, but this is an invaluable exercise in openness by NPR. It might not prevent you from facing the same or similar challenges, but at least you’ll know you’re not alone. Moreover, when conflicts arise, remember the real competition is down the street rather than down the hall.

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