Read All About It: Rebuilding the FT.com newsletters page
When I first joined the FT back in 2016, we were still in the process of rolling out the latest version of FT.com to all of our readers and we had a few features left to build. My team at the time, myFT, was tasked with building a newsletters page to let users browse and subscribe to the newsletters on offer from the FT.
Our Design team got to work on the page and built new card components to represent each newsletters. They were visually engaging, with levels of detail and colour-coded to indicate the type of newsletter. But as often happens in technical projects, our understanding of the requirements changed. The data we had at the time made differentiating between the newsletters visually difficult. And the page wouldn’t be hosting ~10 newsletters as we’d originally thought, it would be more like 25, with plans to increase that number even further. The user experience was all wrong on that scale. Who wants to scroll through 25 full page newsletter cards on a mobile? No one. The cards had to be redesigned and now the deadline was tight.
This is what we came up with. The team had pulled together to design and ship a new, more compact newsletter card with more consistent styling across newsletters that would be more functional and easier for users to navigate, especially on mobile devices.
We quickly moved our focus to working on our next objectives as a team. Nevertheless, a ticket was immediately placed on our tech debt column, with promises to revisit the page and make some of the improvements we’d hoped to deliver as soon as the team had capacity.
Fast forward about 4 years. A lot has changed! I’m now a senior engineer in our Accounts team. Our tech strategy, No Next Next, has steered us through some important moves to improve the stability and performance of FT.com.
But the newsletters page has remained largely the same. Until now.
So why did we decide to redesign this page? Well, over the last few years we’d learned a lot about how our current newsletters were performing.
User research showed that readers who subscribe to newsletters were more engaged than the baseline and they were much more likely to stay subscribed to the FT at the end of their membership term. This isn’t all that surprising when you consider that editorial curation and gaining access to the FT’s view on current affairs is exactly what many readers value most about their subscriptions to the FT.
The global landscape around newsletters had changed too. The rise in direct-to-consumer media with platforms like Substack have made it much easier for writers to distribute, monetise and manage audiences for their newsletters. For users who want journalism from trusted sources they can curate, newsletters were proving an ideal format.
But within the FT newsletters subscriptions had started to plateau, and we knew that the technology underpinning the page had not kept pace with our more modern tooling. When we looked again at our user research it showed that only around 26% of our subscribers were currently subscribed to any newsletters and around 37% didn’t even know we offer newsletters.
When we took all this into account, we saw a real opportunity to reach a bigger audience by improving the newsletters landing page. And we got straight to work.
With our goal in mind, a group of Product, Editorial and Design teams collaborated across departments to design a new version of the newsletters page that would be more visually impactful, easier to navigate and overall a better experience for users.
We added some brand new features, including:
- We added images to each of the newsletters cards. The Editorial team curated an image to represent each of the newsletters that the FT was offering at the time. Honestly, this change on its own would have improved the design of the page by a lot! They capture the tone of each newsletter and provide some of the visual interest that the page was clearly crying out for.
- We grouped the newsletters into Topics so that the page could be organised and navigated by theme. This was a huge win for the user experience of the page which by now was serving around 40 different newsletters. Having this data let us group newsletters about similar subjects together and gave users a quick way to skip to the content they cared about most.
- We added Preview links so that users could read a recent edition of a newsletter before deciding whether or not to subscribe. This let us showcase our content in the moment and gave users more confidence about deciding which emails they’d like to receive from the FT.
Starting in January, I led a group of engineers in implementing the redesigned page. We had been set up for success by the groundwork of many other teams:
- A new Newsletters API had been built and was ready to receive traffic
- A cross-discipline team had worked through a set of feature requests and requirements
- We had a full set of new designs for the page
- The technical requirements had been tested for viability by a senior engineer
I’m thankful for all of this preparation work as it made the technical journey a relatively smooth one, but we did run into a few unexpected challenges along the way.
Right off the bat, our first big challenge was deciding where the code for our new page should live. The existing page lived in a codebase which was owned and managed by another team. This is a long lived codebase, having passed through many hands over the years, and as a result technical decisions here are restrained by legacy.
We decided to create a new codebase for our work so that the ownership could be more clearly understood. This decision also gave us the freedom to make better technical choices. We chose a modern templating language, JSX, and implemented the latest version of our internal tooling, FT.com Tool Kit, both of which would have been very difficult to do without the move to a new codebase.
Our next key challenge came when I discovered that the two APIs we planned to use did not agree on the ID values for each newsletter. This made it impossible to programmatically merge data from the two sources and it was a big problem as all of the new features we wanted to build relied on us being able to blend this data.
Ultimately, we decided that the best way forward would be to temporarily hardcode some of the data within our app, bypassing the content API (CAPI) entirely and relying only on the new Newsletters API. Updates to CAPI are in progress so we will be able to remove the hardcoded data soon and rely on our APIs more directly.
Hot off the Press
The new page was rolled out to all FT subscribers in June 2022. Visually, it’s a massive improvement and it’s much easier for users to navigate. Not only that, but the redesign led to a significant increase in newsletter subscriptions and engagement with the new features has been really positive.
But we’re not stopping here! Engineers are continuing to iterate on the technology that supports the page behind the scenes to make the way we fetch and update the data more dynamic. And on the Editorial side, our journalists are continuing to support and grow newsletters by launching fantastic new content on the platform.
Having worked on the team which delivered the newsletters page in 2016, it was a great experience to be involved in its redesign for 2022. I’m proud of the changes we’ve made and of the small part they played in our overall tech strategy.
A very big thank you to the whole FT.com Accounts team, and to Alice Bartlett, Rowan Manning and Anna Shipman for reviewing this post.