Redesigning NBC News Digital from the outside in
NBC News is in the middle of a digital transformation. They’re rolling out the best possible content experiences for both the old school and digital-savvy news consumer one step at a time. This initiative is being spearheaded by Moritz Gimbel, the organization’s VP of Product and Design. Moritz’s goal: continuing NBC News’ mission of serving quality news to every American. (You can read about the creation of new NBC brands Mach, Better and the soon-to-be-launched Think here.)
It’s been just over a year since Moritz joined NBC, and we spoke to him about his process of redesigning the storied news organization’s digital properties from the outside in, why audience loyalty is his number one KPI and how he’s improving the monetization efforts of sites like msnbc.com and today.com. Here’s our interview with Moritz.
You’ve been at NBC for just over a year now. What first compelled you to join the organization?
NBC is an amazing news organization with an amazing legacy, and I think they have an opportunity to build a new and broader digital audience. It was really exciting to join a company that is successful in cable and television and hasn’t, maybe, done quite as much in the digital space yet. We’re building an incredible team under new leadership to advance our digital presence. That’s a thrilling journey to be part of.
What specific problems were you brought on to solve?
The first six months was very much internal. When I arrived, it was about building a product team, process and structure. That consumed much of my time because publishing companies are very editorial-focused and content-led — and they should be. But it sometimes means product design and technology is not necessarily developed in the way it could be. That was really the first challenge: creating that capability to build better and faster.
We also wanted to create new properties and brands, and broaden the appeal of what we do. Currently in the main digital areas we have, we’re still very much an extension of our TV brands. And that’s a great legacy to be a part of. But we want to reach audiences beyond our regular viewers and build new digital-first brands.
One of your mandates is to build audience loyalty across NBC News’ portfolio, and you’ve been experimenting with different tactics by building new brands — namely Mach and Better. Can you walk us through your strategy to keep audiences coming back for more content?
Our number one business goal is to develop deeper relationships with our customers. Loyalty is so important because if you grow your share of loyal audiences, your daily active visitors will multiply. Conserving readers and watchers is much more valuable for us as a business.
“We want to tell stories that don’t clickbait you into consumption.”
If you aim purely for scale and write stories chasing SEO trends or social virality, that gets you distribution — to a degree. But we need to offer true value for people to come back to us and foster a relationship over time. That’s more monetizable (and frankly, better for society). We want to tell stories that don’t clickbait you into consumption.
We don’t — for example — do auto-play. We switched off auto-play over a year ago, because those kinds of growth hacks don’t validate that you’re creating good content and serving your audience. We wanted to know if users were truly engaging with our content, rather than getting content thrown at them.
For our new brands like Mach and Better, we want to build digital-first brands that have a voice, that have an identity, that cover niche topics extremely well. Some of the more digital-first brands started doing this awhile ago; we’re not claiming to invent this. But if you look at Mach — covering science, space and innovation — we found a very specific audience and serve them deeply over time. We did a bunch of testing around this when we first launched pop-up verticals. We didn’t give them a new design and website, but rather, we wrote stories with a particular angle and monitored over time what the consumption patterns were. That’s how brands like Mach and Better evolved.
How do you balance serving great content experiences with the need to monetize that same content through advertising?
Our ambition is to have the best consumption experience for our content as possible. The idea is that our advertising over time should become more immersive and frictionless. We don’t do pop-ups. As I said, we don’t do auto-play for video. We’re trying to balance user experience and monetization, and that’s why loyalty is so important.
If you build loyalty and people come to you multiple times a day or week, you don’t have to cram that much monetization into one visit or click. You can look holistically at your revenue per user. It’s a more sustainable way of building business over time.
“The idea is that our advertising over time should become more immersive and frictionless.”
Better ad units are part of that. Our new designs have much better ad integration, because they have modular page designs. We no longer work in templates with rigid pixel-locked scale; everything is a modular component. Our new ad units respond to the containers around them. So it means we can have many more page layouts, because ads actually scale with layouts.
You’re currently in the process of a huge redesign, and I’ve read that you’re taking an approach that you refer to as “designing from the outside in” — why have you chosen this approach?
Having done a few redesigns and burned myself by starting with the inside — which is often the home page and article page — I’ve learned that the reverse is better. Start with the periphery of your portfolio. Take smaller brands that are on the fringe — smaller audience, younger brands.
There’s less expectation from users on how these things work, so you can introduce new user experiences and design schemas without users freaking out. Because whenever you redesign something, no matter how good you do it, the first reaction generally is, “I don’t like it. I was used to this thing that I love.”
By going outside in, taking new brands or smaller parts of your sites and apps, you’re slowly validating that what you’re doing is right — and get early data. Then, you work towards the center, which are more frequently consumed content types. Going outside in is a more iterative, discovery- and test-based approach to product launches.
For example, our article page (which will become the article page for everything else we do) we have very good initial data on what’s working. Where’s recirculation going? How’s ad viewability? Now, we can optimize and scale. And then, brand by brand, roll out across the whole network.
You’re building and designing new systems for the end-user, but you also need to equally consider the needs of NBC’s staff — your reporters and editors. How are they influencing your product decisions?
A publishing company has two products: content and packaging. I’m in charge of packaging, and the editorial staff is in charge of content, obviously. But these things have to go hand-in-hand.
In an ideal world, all decisions and design discovery are done together. But I think a lot about scale and the editorial staff thinks a lot about speed. They want to iterate minute-by-minute, and for me, it’s fast to iterate on a day-by-day basis. It’s a tricky relationship.
“We’re trying to balance user experience and monetization, and that’s why loyalty is so important.”
The most innovation is actually driven by observing and working closely with our audience and our editors; bringing them into the design and discovery process as much as possible. For instance, we tested our new article page with editors and audience. We picked key individuals in the newsroom and had them see how members of our audience consume content — what they pay attention to.
And then we observed how editors put an article together and how the article renders with better or worse images, how they put quotes and charts into the article. It’s very similar to what you would do externally. It’s really hard to get right and requires buy-in from both product and editorial.
You built a Slack bot to help reporters access data. Can you tell me about that?
We have an integration in our internal Slack, where you can ask basic stats for an article. It’s just a conversational way of getting data that you would get from a dashboard otherwise. It’s been pretty successful, because when you’re in a reporter’s mindset of communicating in Slack and writing in a document, to go to a third place and understand a dashboard, it’s a real contextual switch. They just want one specific piece of information, so the Slack bot is a way to just ask for that.
It’s early days. We’re actually building out not just for Slack, but for multiple messaging services. We’re building out an API layer that is between our content management tool and specific clients, which would allow us to easily integrate internal and external bots. Building these services internally that can extract content and data efficiently allows you to then build better user experiences for internal and external users.
You’ve built a living style guide as a foundation for your new design system. Based on what I’ve read, you have accessible components in Sketch and built a layer onto React. Can you give some insight into your approach here?
When we first built the new front-end framework, we had to do something very fast with our existing engineering staff. No one had worked in React before, so I brought on someone I worked with at Bloomberg who helped us create a simpler library and framework that is React-like. (Now, we’re going fully React/Redux.)
“Going outside in is a more iterative, discovery- and test-based approach to product launches.”
In terms of the living style guide, this is like designing from outside in. When you redesign so many properties in so many places, you end up with these monster style guides that no one ever goes back to. And they’re always out of date, because by the time you’ve released or tested something, it’s already changed three times.
So we basically built a way to map real client code back into a style guide that automatically updates. If you want to find a style and extract that code and build a new version in a different color on a different breakpoint for a different property, that living style guide will always be in sync. There’s no longer this stale paper or digital file that you go to. It’s linked directly with the front-end client.
What has been the hardest part of this entire process?
The hardest, but also most interesting, part is building one system for all brands. In the past, all our brands had their own CMS, front-end client, design system; they evolved independently. But to build audience loyalty and engagement, we need to circulate content and users through our entire network of sites.
“A publishing company has two products: content and packaging.”
I oversee product for MSNBC, NBC News Properties, Today Digital, new verticals and more. Currently, all of which are somewhat separate. The challenge is bringing MSNBC, Today Digital and the main NBC News sites onto this new platform with a unified design language, front-end client, ad library, analytics, publishing workflow and more. Everything is shared, but these sites don’t look the same. If you go to Today, which is a lifestyle audience, it’s very different from MSNBC. So obviously, those two brands need to be distinguished visually. But in terms of storytelling tools and publishing there doesn’t need to be a difference between the article and the way the video player works or how navigation is structured.
Working with multiple newsrooms and multiple brands; getting all of their requirements and ideas; solving their problems, but always rolling it back up into one system, that’s really the Holy Grail. And if we get that right, we’ll be in a place where everyone in the network has their own unique property that tells their stories and publishes their content in a way they like. It will be a more unified, efficient way of packaging and distributing our content. Getting that right is the hardest and most exciting thing.
How are you measuring the success of the redesign?
I spoke about loyalty and engagement, so those are our business KPIs. And we’re trying to roll up both content and product analytics into those KPIs. Another challenge of being in product management in publishing is that your data is sort of not clean. If your product is a utility, like a ride sharing app, there’s maybe weather and time of day or time of year. But those are relatively obvious, predictable things to look at.
For us, news flow changes every hour, every day. Sometimes, you see difference in consumption that you could interpret as differences with your product. But in reality, your product had nothing to do with it. Maybe there was a crazy story, or your video ended up being promoted on a major portal, and that’s why it spiked. Understanding that analytics challenge is pretty complex. We’re trying to combat this with having different analytic suites that look at different things, and, as a group, always discussing how both sides affect our performance.
What are you most excited about in rolling out this redesign?
I’m super excited to roll out in stages over the next few months. So we’re not doing one big release. We’re actually having maybe three, four, five individual releases towards the end of the year, and I think nothing gives a product manager more of a rush than seeing your thing out in the wild and looking at the data of how people interact with it.
I’m also excited about launching our new article page for our news brands. In the vertical test case, it’s performing extremely well. People read longer. They scroll deeper. They engage more. They share more. So I’m eager to launch the article page when we feel comfortable that it’s ready.
Managing a major redesign for your own product? We definitely have a roadmap template to help you with that.