How The Economist builds digital products

The lessons we learned in product development

Source: Denise’s camera

Over the past year, our digital teams at The Economist have been thinking more deeply about how we can build products and experiences that subscribers love. After a year of experimentation, a little bit of chaos and a whole lot of fun, here are some of the biggest lessons we learned.

Invest in your owned-and-operated products

While it’s important to experiment with new platforms such as social media and other third-party channels, we realised that it’s even more important to invest in the platforms we ultimately control, such as our website and apps. A year ago, The Economist made a big investment to accelerate the development of economist.com and a new app — the products that we believe are best positioned to attract and retain subscribers.

Economist.com is already a big driver of subscriptions. Many people use it to sample our journalism before deciding whether to subscribe. It is crucial that we make a good first impression. That is why we are focusing more resources on optimising our readers’ first visit to the website, in addition to improving basic things like speed, navigation and performance for regular visitors.

The new app, meanwhile, aims to retain subscribers once they have signed up. As my colleague Richard Holden, who led its development, writes: the goal is to help subscribers easily discover and enjoy the best of our journalism in one place.

Ensure that your strategy aligns with your mission

Our product mission is to complement world-class journalism with a world-class digital experience. However, doing more digital stuff is not a strategy. Digital is a means to an end — that end being a better customer experience across all channels. We now try our best to put the customers’ needs (rather than our own!) at the heart of every feature and product we build.

Source: Denise’s phone

Be humble. Don’t second-guess your subscribers

It’s human nature to want to jump to quick solutions to problems. But in product development, the wrong solutions could turn into a costly waste of time. Especially if you are solving the wrong problems. Before we developed the new app, we started with a simple hypothesis based on customer feedback: readers are cancelling because of the “unread guilt factor”.

Many of our former subscribers found it difficult to stay on top of The Economist edition each week and simply gave up. We spoke to some of them to validate that the problem actually existed. (It helped that The Onion once spoofed us about it.) It did. We also invalidated some of our assumptions: for example, we suspected that readers might want a personalised list of articles, when in reality they saw us as a trusted curator and valued our editorial judgement.

Test ideas with subscribers

Our UX researcher spoke to more than 100 subscribers and prospects before we built the app in actual code. This ensured we weren’t wasting time and resources on features no one wanted. In fact, in some of our user-testing labs, we used post-its as fake menus and prototypes on Marvel, a prototyping app, to figure out whether the app was addressing real pain points, such as information overload and difficulty finding relevant content — the leading indicators for churn. Once we had built the real app, we ran an alpha test with 50 subscribers before releasing it to more than 700 on TestFlight, an Apple service for testing iOS apps.

Featuritis will kill a product

We endeavoured, where possible, to avoid “featuritis” — a terrible affliction that affects many in the world of product management. With the app, we focused on delivering the minimal viable features required at launch (a topical selection called Daily Picks, the Espresso morning briefing, access to the print and audio editions, and bookmarks). Admittedly, it was tempting to cram every shiny new thing into the app before its first release, but we reassured our stakeholders that the launch is only the first step. We plan to continue polishing and improving the app. It is, after all, our job to keep delighting subscribers.

There’s always room for improvement. Tell your customers that

It’s important to take customer feedback seriously, but not too personally (which is easier said than done!). With both the new app and economist.com, we get a flurry of constructive and sometimes painful-to-read comments, daily. While many users raved about the new app experience, for example, some gave us a heart-wrenching 1-star rating (out of five) because we did not include their most beloved feature. So we reassured them that we are working on it and will be adding more features in the coming weeks and months.


As usual, we’d love your feedback. What do you like about our products? What bugs you? What could we do to improve your digital experience of The Economist? Let us know in the comments below.

Denise Law is head of product at The Economist.

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