"Our future lies in the hands of our readers"

“Our future lies in the hands of our readers”

Daresay Team - January 27, 2015

UX is about respecting and nurturing our readers, and the expertise needs to reach higher up the corporate hierarchy, says Frederik Hjelmqwist, UX Lead at Aftonbladet news.

As the UX Lead at Sweden’s largest digital newspaper, what are your UX processes and methods?

UX is a lot about being a gatekeeper. As a UX designer, I may not have all the answers to how to get the best user experience, but it is my job and my responsibility as a UX designer to recognise and create the right conditions for good ideas; to make way for good ideas and redirect the not-so-appropriate ones. We try to work according to the motto, “Design is not a department, it’s a behavior”. Why we do something, whom we do it for and in what context something is in is a three-fold paradigm that everyone at Aftonbladet should always have in mind.

At Aftonbladet, UX designers are generally involved in the creative process together with other stakeholders when we develop a new product. We often begin by setting clearly-defined, measurable goals for what we want to achieve with a new product or a product improvement. We then try to identify what problems we must address in order to find the best way forward. When we have a well-defined problem, we try to be as open as possible as to how to best achieve the desired effects.

So how does a more measured approach work in a fast-paced news environment?

This approach to problem solving can be quite challenging in a news culture, where the player who publishes first often takes all. People here are used to jumping on the task, trying to solve every problem as fast as possible, to break the story before anyone else does. Instead, this approach to problem solving requires defining problems instead of solving them. This is something that at a first glance would seem to take up unnecessary time, but in practice usually gets you to a result faster, and hopefully a better one at that. Often, many good solutions come naturally if you have a good enough understanding of the problem.

Once we have a possible solution, we usually want to prototype it to test it on users right away. If there are not enough people visiting our reception at the moment, we run down to Central Train Station nearby to ask people if they want to take a stab at our latest invention.

Working at a newspaper is a tough market these days, and comes with a large number of stakeholders – from journalists to marketing, management to readers – all with diverging interests. How does UX hold its own?

It’s super fun to work at Aftonbladet because people dare to go the whole hog. I think that’s a big reason for Aftonbladet’s success. Responsibility isn’t always given here; you have to take it. Talents tend to thrive in such an environment and get really good at their areas of expertise. But sometimes there’s no one who keeps an eye on the big picture, someone who asks why should we try this next hot idea.

We’ve published newspapers for over 180 years and have become very good at it, but now that digital channels have overtaken print, the game plan has completely changed. Therefore, co-workers appreciate UX designers trying to help them understand the new conditions as well as our users’ expectations. UX designers have a big responsibility, and it’s important that our expertise reaches higher up the corporate hierarchy, where our expertise is needed more than ever, now that the power has shifted from the boardrooms to the users.

Aftonbladet is Sweden’s fourth largest website in terms of number of visitors, just behind Google, Facebook and Youtube. Whereas in the US, Germany and the UK, none of the printed papers have even managed to enter the top ten. To what extent do you think your UX work has contributed to this success?

Aftonbladet was early to focus on digital channels, which gave us a huge head start. Few other countries have tabloid sites that look like they do in Sweden. Aftonbladet has undoubtedly been trendsetting in that sense. We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty and dare to challenge conventions in order to test the limits, for good or for worse. This has been important in helping us grow quickly and weather stormy times, and it given us the opportunity to capitalise on channels that have been proven to be very difficult to monetise.

But we are not alone anymore. We compete not only with other newspapers in Sweden, but also with each individual writer and blogger who writes about something that we write about. Users no longer need to choose a single source for all news, they choose the one that offers the best coverage for each topic they are interested in.

How do you think you can continue to set yourself apart from the competition?

We need to find new success factors, in addition to understanding the composition of content that appeals to our readers. We need to understand both why users choose what they choose and what are their expectations. For instance, about a year and a half ago when we launched our current mobile site, we set our aim to have the world’s fastest news site.

Almost every part of our site was evaluated on the basis of how it affects the site’s load speed, for example, editors had to learn to compress the images properly to minimise load times. The result was striking, we increased the number of page views per visit from 3.6 to 4.8 views per visit immediately. It was not just the speed that accounted for the increase, but it definitely played an important part. Understanding what benefits users will be increasingly important in order to maintain our leading position in the future.

What is the big challenge from a UX perspective for Aftonbladet and other digital newspapers the next five to ten years, would you say?

Understanding success factors online and the new conditions of today. Why do people change their behaviour and what new expectations do these behavioural changes entail? The main part of our content is still written text and images, the same as in the printed newspaper. I think the big challenge is to find ways that give users a better experience of both editorial and commercial content.

Users are getting tired of having large, often irrelevant, advertising campaigns thrown in their faces when they try to visit our site. We should treat them with respect and nurture our relationship with them. After all, our future lies in their hands. Users will always choose the alternative that best suits their needs and preferences, so we must ensure that both the best and the most convenient way for them to get news is through us. UX designers have a responsibility to understand human behaviour and create solutions which promote them. But simultaneously we have a responsibility to understand how we can make money without violating user value and experience. Could it even be that there are ways to capitalise on meeting user needs with great experiences?

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