New York Times x Google Maps: UX Case Study

Introduction

Back in January, in my spring semester, my Fundamentals of UX class was tasked with discovering a way for the New York Times to attract a younger demographic of users. We were given a variety of buckets to choose from: subscription models to new content avenues to storytelling. Given the time frame this would be more of a sprint than a full length project so we had to be strategic about our choice. Of all the choices, we decided to choose “distribution”. The Times was growing and we wanted to explore the variety of ways readers were accessing the paper. We decided on a challenge statement: How can the NYT reinvent its distribution model to reach millennials on the apps and websites they currently use day to day?

We first took a look at the hits and misses of the online and paper offering.

Landscape

Despite what’s being put out by the Trump organization, the NYT is growing at a steady rate and surprisingly a big component of that has nothing to do with news. About 40% of new subscriptions in the first quarter of this year came from cooking and crosswords. With data showing the paper moving to provide readers with more lifestyle content options, we decided to dig into this a little deeper.

While the usage was growing overall, happiness with the experience wasn’t. The app still had a 2.2 rating in the app store while some of its major competitors had 4 stars. On top of that, non users could only access the paper with 5 free articles a month — down from ten two months prior. Readers were not necessarily eager for a new outlet, but a better experience. Few outlets in this space provide a better experience for similar content. We knew the major players but wanted to take a closer look at competitors on the fringe.

Competitive Analysis

At its core, the paper is known for three things: business, art and world news. Slowly creeping behind those categories are events, food and lifestyle. With scaffolding already in place for food, events and lifestyle content growth, testing a new distribution model seemed worthwhile.

Readers can typically get their arts culture and lifestyle content from a variety of places whether it be bloggers, influencers or social media. Taking a step back we looked at venues, events and reviews; who was dominating this space? in what capacity? and what were the gaps that could be filled? For events the answer was obvious. Eventbrite and Timeout was at the forefront for things you wanted to do in your area that will aligned with your interest. Outside of direct event information, there was no real content provided or reviews — just a strong brand voice at best.

NYT existing design for restaurant search

On the contrary, Yelp is inundated with content, user generated content about experiences, feelings and feedback about a particular venue and its offerings, but very little brand voice. Focusing on events, reviews and venues, our challenge became providing content in a meaningful way. We wanted a fun, informative brand voice that could potentially lead to an offline experience for the reader.

Current Offerings

New York Times has already created an in-house vision of what this would look like centered around restaurant reviews. This location view maps NYT content to restaurants in the city, effectively showing readers location based content that fits their preferences and interests. The ability to filter for these seemed like a no brainer. But what if NYT already knew your preferences and interests? What if the queue was already tailored to your eating habits without filtering? As a standalone browser feature, this would have to be used with Google maps in order to get directions.

Looking at the current landscape was the easy part, we had yet to interview users. Once we did, we started to get some interesting insights.

I would like to see reviews from a good source such as the New York Times instead of just people’s reviews because sometimes they can be just complaints saying this was good or bad … but when you have critically written reviews, sometimes that is more helpful than just random people giving reviews. — Annie M

Persona

We broke down our users into what could be described as a content consumption spectrum. The majority of the users we were trying to reach fell within the tactical to exploratory range and our users leaned towards more exploratory. These users are not planners when it comes to leisure activities. Gravitating to whatever is in their orbit comes natural to them: what they heard about, what their friends are doing or that banner for a party they saw on the subway.

User: Millennials and people aging 21–40 years old who are looking for the next hot thing in their city from someone who knows.

Content Consumption spectrum

Insights

Readers want more from the content they’re consuming, and not only do they want it to be tailored to them but it should be actionable as well.

  • Having options that fit within your schedule and your location is important
  • A subject matter expert or trusted opinion is preferred over crowdsourced information
  • Users want to know what their friends are doing

They engage with content the same way, they are more apt to read a retweeted article than go browsing a blog on their own. Knowing this, we set out to find how we could put content at the fingertips of an exploratory users, one who wasn’t necessarily in search of content but was hoping to find it.

Concept

Illustration by teammate Kinza Kasher

We’re fully aware this concept was a hypothetical and would require tremendous amount of handshaking between two companies and is rather over simplified.

Our users were sophisticated, busy and driven. As planned as their lives were, they wanted spontaneity. When questioned about lifestyle content, users wanted to be shown the things they were interested in and where they could find them at the same time, in context. As vague as that is, we brainstormed a couple ways to achieve that. Where can we show content in context? Is that album reviews in Apple Music, event blurbs in Google maps? (We initially tried the first among other things, didn’t work out)

We opted for the latter. Google Maps at the time had not yet committed to content. Taking a look at Maps today, it looks totally different than it did at the start of the year much less a couple months ago. Maps have become more content than directions and, in a way, we were ahead of the curve. At the time, it surely wasn’t as fleshed out as it is now.

Design Principles for content

Our research started to show us that users wanted content for places, events or venues they were interested in to exist in the same place that tells them how to get there. We made sure to adhere to the design principles we had set out from the beginning to keep us from adding on features and unnecessary options.

Content for places, events or venues you want to go to could exist in the same place that tells you how to get there.

Our premise was simple in theory but complex in nature: why can’t users be shown what’s happening around them in the place they go to look for directions? If users can be told about nearby events in the same place they get their directions from, they would be more likely to go to these events, movies, exhibits, etc.

The process would be simple. A user could go onto Google Maps, click “explore events” and be provided a blurb from the NYT about what’s happening and where. Clicking through to the article would leave Google maps and go to the NYT website.

Native Concept

Material Design for Maps

Designing within material design guidelines gave us the structure we needed and the freedom to be liberal with content. Designing the experience called for hierarchy: we wouldn’t be merging NYT style with material design only housing the papers content within the guidelines of material design. The content itself would be the differentiator from the source and subtle branding.

first iterations the content was not as evenly spaced
Further iterations allowed for more distribution

The more we could stick to material design, the more native the content would feel. This was very important for fluidity, including simple things like micro interactions, transitions and spacing. It had to feel and behave like Google Maps.

Google Material design transition

Location Based Content

The entry point to the feature is the Google Maps homepage. Adding two buttons to the bottom of the page helps separate destinations for users. Google has already created a strong infrastructure for food and drinks, so we decided to leave that content alone. The explore events button would allow users to see a list of what’s going on in their area and when it was happening.

Clicking through to nearby events

Once an event is clicked, users will be taken to the directions page. This now holds a snippet of an article about that particular event.

Recommendations

One of the core features within Native is to give users the ability rate the recommendations they are given. Using machine learning throughout Google products to recommend events to users is not enough if we don’t know how well these recommendations are working. Being proactive about the content being served to users allows us to be more efficient and surface only relevant content based on interest.

With the recent updates to Google Maps, this content could live in and be updated in a variety of places. The current navigation allows for saving, starred and favorites for places you liked.

Current Google maps design for users saved places

Feedback

Initially our concept was met with some apprehension from our professor and rightfully so (she’s VP of Design at NYT). She didn’t believe people were opening Google Maps aimlessly. Her stance was that users were simply looking to get from point A to point B. Google Maps was a tactical tool people were using for directions — not to explore things in their neighborhood or what’s around them. It was more utility than exploratory.

This almost swayed us. But the more primary research we did, the more we were convinced the concept would resonate with people who were interested in finding events and even more so things curated just for them with an underlying air of expertise. This ballooned once we started doing user testing. It felt real to users, as if it should already exist in the world. Google was always privy to this unbeknownst to us and was definitely prepping some new feature rollouts for the future. The current version of Maps is well thought out and full of content.

Current Google maps event content
If I could do everything in one app. My process right now is look up a good restaurant on yelp and then copy and paste that into Google maps. Im rotating between all these apps right now. If I could just get legit news right there without going to my browser. I would definitely use that. — Henry Chang

Takeaways

Kinza Kasher and I presenting our concept to NYT design staff

Presenting this at the NYT while daunting was refreshing: hearing feedback from stakeholders who work on NYT products for a living was a fresh perspective. It was nice to see them receive a concept so well. Overall, the feeling was that this was a viable option to pursue new readers through and was worth adding on to the existing partnership the NYT has with Google.

We got further feedback that gave us pause and would be key areas to consider if this project were pursued. In the next iteration of a prototype we would look to address the following:

  • ways the content can feel more native to NYT
  • how to structured as a business opportunity and not competitive advantage?
  • further business value for Google Maps

Soon after Google would make a series of guidelines for events on maps.

Disclaimer: I do not work at the NYT nor Google Maps and this case study was just an exercise for a class project in my graduate program.