How The Atlantic, Slate and others obsess about user experience

There’s a new obsession at publishing companies: user experience. Media companies had to start paying more attention to content design as new tech products required content that fit different screen sizes. UX has expanded to include things like page load time and ad formats, as the alarming rise of ad blocking has brought it to the fore.

As a result, publishers like The Atlantic, Mic and Slate are appointing dedicated user experience experts and putting more effort into testing products and features before releasing them.

For Slate, user experience is critical to setting the publisher itself apart in a crowded market, said David Stern, director of product development there. “We recognize that design and user experience are going to be the things that really differentiate Slate for both our readers and the ad marketplace,” he said. “If we want people to come back again and again, we have to have as polished and distinctive a design as we possibly can.”

Responsibility for user experience often falls to the product head, which in itself is one of those new titles that’s become popular as publishers recognize that how their editorial content is delivered is as important as the content itself. That’s because product is seen as a neutral function that spans editorial and sales, whose interests can clash with each other and the user experience. Edit might be inclined to load up a page with slideshows that maximize page views or showy (but data-hogging) videos, while sales is motivated to stuff pages with lucrative but annoying ads. It’s politically correct to say everyone should care about user experience; the reality doesn’t work that way.

“Everyone has to buy in, but your product team has to own it,” said Neil Vogel, CEO of “They have to be the police, because there’s a lot of competing interests. They’re the best able to translate everyone’s needs into what goes on the page.”

Millennial-aimed publisher Mic has had a UX researcher for several months and is in the process of grooming a second. The Atlantic brought a UX designer on board last fall. Slate is planning to bring on a UX designer later in the year to be in charge of user testing.

Along with hiring UX specialists, publishers are also putting testing on steroids. Mic prides itself on putting a heavy focus on the data and user feedback. It solicits feedback from readers starting early in the process, through one-on-one meetings and in video conferencing.

“It’s actual Mic readers — we’re talking with them about every product,” said Anthony Sessa, vp of product and engineering. “It can be adjusting the font size or making the column width a little bigger or smaller — everything goes through testing.”

The Atlantic has gone from redesigning its site every two years to doing it on an ongoing basis. Last year, it conducted 60 tests, up from fewer than 10 the year before, on everything from navigation arrow buttons to how to promote its newsletter. This year, it’s been bringing in readers to get feedback to proposed changes to the site’s home page and navigation, using a “clickable prototype” that users can actually manipulate, said Kim Lau, svp of digital and head of business development there.

The increased focus on user experience may still be the province of premium publishers. But those who are prioritizing it say it’s resulting in changes that benefit readers. Mic, for example, is considering getting rid of infinite scroll after readers said in feedback sessions that they didn’t like it, Sessa said.

Slate got rid of pagination, a practice that may have increased page impressions but required the reader to click multiple times to get through an article, Stern said.

When the process works well, both business and editorial benefit. When launched a standalone site for its health service content, Verywell, it reduced the number of ad spots by around 20 percent and took off recirculation widgets like Zergnet’s. The result was a cleaner-looking site that was easier for readers to navigate and also improved the business picture because with less clutter on the page, ad viewability went up dramatically, Vogel said.

“There’s a ton more white space and it’s easier and friendlier to use,” he said. “It turns out, the performance of ads goes up and clicks go up because people are doing it on purpose.”

Image: Fotolia

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