The business of design: Chris Khalil, News Limited

In the fourth of our the business of design series of interviews we talk with Chris Khalil. Chris is the Director of UX and Design for the publishing and media organisation News Limited.

In the interview Chris discusses the importance of understanding an organisations appreciation of user experience, the need for designers to be pragmatic and to align with the value model of their organisation, the importance of quantitative data to substantiate qualitative insights, and the changing role of his team from project-based work to business as usual.

Chris is eminently quotable, but three snippets in particular stand out:

  • “A lot of the problems with practitioners in our field arise because we are sometimes seen as almost anti-business. I’ve seen this attitude in the community, I’ve seen practitioners become zealots about the user, their feelings and their rights.   They fight and resist decisions that are made for commercial benefit because they might impinge on the perfect user experience.  This isn’t helped by an often evangelical, polemic and condescending attitude and language.”
  • “Remember business understands the importance of the customer only in terms of the value they derive from the customer. Therefore explaining a design decision in terms of its ROI is more effective than emotively talking about the feelings and emotions of the audience.”
  • “typically in big organisations there is excitement about the big launch of a new product with a lot of energy and resources are expended prior to launch.  The day it launches is pretty much the best that product will ever be. Six months down the line entropy starts to kick in”

Tell me a bit about your role and where you sit within the organisation

I am Director of User Experience and Design at News Limited. My team’s role is to develop the UX strategy and design for our major online products. That includes the newspaper websites, mobile sites and tablet apps (i.e. The Australian, The Telegraph, Herald Sun, news.com.au etc.) and support for our other businesses like magazines (i.e. Vogue, Taste, etc.) and a range of other category led products such as classifieds, marketplaces, jobs, cars and property.

We are not involved in each of these businesses full time, many have their own designers, but we get engaged on a project-by-project basis.

Do they come to you or do you proactively reach out to them for work?

Our primary function is the product design of our core newspaper business and the platforms that support it such as mobile, social, search and video. We also get involved in all the other products ranges across out network. We are a cross between an internal consultancy and a product design team. We have certain discretion as to what we take on and as long as we deliver on our commitments we have a fair degree of autonomy.

I have a team of 13 UX & Design practitioners within which there are specialist roles such as Principal UX Architect, UX Team Lead, UX Research & Strategy Lead, Art Director and  Mobile UX Lead.

  • The Principal UX Architect owns and makes the final decision and calls on all UX design and is responsible for keeping it consistent across the network and cultivating repeatable principles and patterns.
  • The UX Team Lead is responsible for allocating resources across projects, leading the core UX team and managing the UX process to make sure it works.
  • The UX Research & Strategy Lead is the specialist in delivering our approach to qualitative and quantitative research as well as experience strategy.
  • The Art Director leads the visual design practice and the Mobile UX Leads role is to own the practice around the experience design of mobile and devices.

My role is to develop the team strategy, to manage upwards, to try and propagate UX thinking in the organisation and I am ultimately responsible for what we deliver.

Tell me a bit about how you propagate UX thinking?

It is first and foremost about developing a strategy on how you intend to raise the organisational maturity around user experience. So, the first thing you need to do is gauge where your organization is pegged in an honest fashion and from there look at what you need to do next to move up the ladder. There are several papers out there around different models, here are a couple (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/maturity.html, http://www.adobe.com/enterprise/pdfs/customer-experience-journey.pdf).

Also, it’s important to realise that communication, tone and a pragmatic attitude are vital, no one likes to be preached at – people don’t respond well to it. A lot of the problems with practitioners in our field arise because we are sometimes seen as almost anti-business. I’ve seen this attitude in the community, I’ve seen practitioners become zealots about the user, their feelings and their rights.   They fight and resist decisions that are made for commercial benefit because they might impinge on the perfect user experience.  This isn’t helped by an often evangelical, polemic and condescending attitude and language.

The truth is, our job is first and foremost about making money for the business who employ us, and yes, we will do this by delivering on the needs of our customer.  However, there are a raft of other important factors in play such as technical, strategic, commercial and operational constraints and opportunities that also need to be taken into consideration.  To truly sing and to make big strategic differences to the product experience we must start by not being seen as blockers, we need to win the battle of being seen as business critical and the trick to this is increasing influence by not fighting every single battle but by winning the important ones, by focusing on the delivery of clear ROI and by talking the language of business.  Remember business understands the importance of the customer only in terms of the value they derive from the customer. Therefore explaining a design decision in terms of its ROI is more effective than emotively talking about the feelings and emotions of the audience.

To that end quantitative data is important as it’s a language business trust and are familiar with. You don’t win arguments with senior stakeholders or executives based on the opinions of four or five people, they need hard numbers. We want to go into those discussions with all our key decisions evidenced by statistically significant levels of user data or actual usage data.

Transparency is also important. To me, what we do isn’t a black art, its more a science and in science you have open disclosure about your methods. In my team we do not disappear for 6 months and do secret UX magic before returning with the perfect Leonardo Di Vinci wireframes. We work in an open, pragmatic, iterative, rapid, collaborative and lean way that delivers operationally efficient and effective user experiences. We want to take stakeholders on the design journey with us, enabling them to bare witness to the design as it’s moves through the process and increases in terms of fidelity.  We don’t ask the business to trust us on faith, we try to demonstrate value through the quality and efficacy of the work we do and by being open about how we got there.

These mechanisms work over a period of time and build increasing levels of trust so that you don’t need to continually prove yourself. Each year we are taking increasingly senior people on the journey with us. Ultimately their neck is on the line for the return on investment of the product, so if they can understand why you made the decisions you have and can see the results of your decisions they are more likely to continue being advocates after the day-to-day involvement ends.

Are there any case studies you can share?

In some organisations there is a perception that UX is slow or that they are the limiting factor.  It’s not uncommon in this industry for less mature parts of an organization to try and go around UX because they think UX always want to do things ‘properly’, and that often equates to slow. As UX practitioners I think we just need to acknowledge the reality of the world we live in and see that it’s better for us to do something imperfectly, but quickly, rather than not get involved at all.

Recently we worked on the redesign of The Australian and Herald Sun. The idea was to refresh the sites with the objective of putting a paywall in place. At the same time, the plan was to put together a UX framework for the other 5 major news products. In the end we designed 7 sites in 5 weeks. To do this we created a small, cross functional team and isolated them from the rest of the business whilst fully empowering them with decision making authority and a generous budget with which to bring in customers to power up constant rounds of design/test iterations. Within the 5-week period they had created 7 working prototypes for 7 different sites along with a raft of new features and functions.

The results were then played back to the executive who gave the team very positive feedback. We then worked with the digital team of each newspaper business to handover the frameworks and help them with the detailed design and finish for their product. The whole process and result really put us in the spotlight and showed that UX and Design could deliver high quality work in a very short space of time if given the right backing, freedom, resources and a good brief.

When does your teams involvement end?

The organisation is changing. We used to only be involved during concept and design phase of major redesign projects.  Now, we have the mandate to be more directly involved throughout the product life cycle, with the aim of continuously optimising the product experience.

This is fantastic for us, as typically in big organisations there is excitement about the big launch of a new product with a lot of energy and resources are expended prior to launch.  The day it launches is pretty much the best that product will ever be. Six months down the line entropy starts to kick in, the experience starts to deteriorate around the edges until it reaches such a dilapidated state that momentum starts to build again for another big redesign.

We want to change that behaviour and set a clear expectation that the launch of new product should represent the worst experience that product will ever have.  Because, up until that point we’ve only had limited customer feedback, we’ve made decisions based on hypothesis and we’ve made many assumptions.  However, once it’s in the wild we can harvest real insights, experiment with different variations, test, learn and optimise.  The launch of a product is the beginning not the end of the journey.

Which aspects of a design approach are proving easiest and most difficult to instill in the organisation?

The easiest aspect is always around ideation.  People love brainstorming and there is never a shortage of ideas.

The most difficult aspects are around managing stakeholders and their pre-conceived ideas of how the product should look and work. In other words, quite often, in their heads they have a clear notion of how the product needs to be designed to suit their own personal needs, which is quite often not that of their audience.  This is called confirmation bias and is often exhibited by stakeholders – to circumvent this – as a designer, you need to be able to articulate a clear rationale around your design decisions and ground it in user data so it’s defendable against subjective opinion.  We try to deliver user data around design decisions that is unarguable from a statistical point of view.

Are analytics used to measure the impact of your team? NPS?

They are used, but not NPS. Our marketing insights team delivers scores and feedback around advocacy and customer satisfaction.

The problem with NPS is that it is very difficult to uncouple form and function, or content and interface. For example, one of our products could have the perfect interface delivering the most relevant content in the most pleasurable and efficient manner.  But if the content itself don’t resonate with the audience they will express dissatisfaction with the overall product experience.  It’s a problem.

So we’ve tried to work out specific metrics around UX performance that helps us analyse the experience and therefore deliver strategies, for instance, around reducing bounce rate, increasing conversions or driving traffic referrals around the network.

So how holistic is your ability to exercise change? Is content a no-go area?

At the moment content is under the purview of editorial. We can, and do, make suggestions around content but it’s not our domain.  Ultimately content decisions are their domain.

What things would you recommend, or what advice would you give designers working within a business?

As mentioned earlier begin with an understanding your organisations maturity around UX, benchmark it and incrementally build from there.  Set a target of the next maturity level and build out a strategy to get there, share that with your team and get everyone driving to deliver.

Secondly, bring in consumers and get budget for ongoing user research. You need to invest in understanding quantitative data so you can justify your designs at a level the business understands. Take some of the subjectivity out of things; be seen as agnostic of politics. If I’ve spoken about quantitative a lot, I should also be clear that we love qualitative as well. We do lots of co-design sessions, usability tests, interviews and encourage deeper qualitative like diary studies and ethnographic research, they are rich and powerful seams of insight. They inspire us, help us reframe and more often give us bigger innovation leaps that quantitative data does.  But we use quant to validate, verify and justify design.  I should also say that quant is relatively inexpensive there are plenty of cheap tools out there for running these kind of studies.

Thirdly be open. Take people on the journey, collaborate and be lean. I don’t think businesses work well with lots of paper being shuffled around; they work because people connect and are unified behind a vision.

 

This interview was conducted by Iain Barker. If you would be interested to be interviewed as part of the business of design series, please contact iain@meldstudios.com.au.