“We’re changing the way navigation works and adding really deep, rich home pages and section fronts. We’re going to search, and we’re going to build on it. In fact, we’re looking at potentially using ChatGPT in search.” – Tim Shearring
In 2010, The Times and Sunday Times went behind a paywall – a hard one, at that. This year, as they approach 500,000 digital subscribers, they are implementing a wide range of changes and even considering going a bit softer on that paywall.
The website has seen a number of design changes in the past several years. For example, in 2016, the publication merged websites to create a single destination for both titles, and decided to forego “breaking news” for editions-scheduled publishing of digital content.
In 2019, The Times also undertook a long-term Content Review project that comprised a detailed audit of content to analyse how their journalism affects reader behaviour. That same year, paying digital-only subscribers rose 19% to 300,000 and registered-access users grew to 5 million.
However, while the brand has extended its range with innovations like an app and Times Radio, there has been no real changes to the core digital product, says Tim Shearring, Product Design Director at The Times and Sunday Times.
Shearring, who had served six years as creative director of editorial in the newsroom, now leads the Content Discovery Project where his mandate is to meet two challenges: retain existing subscribers, and improve the visibility of articles – especially through SEO – to attract new audiences.
This may sound straightforward, especially given the myriad tech tools now available – and with expert advice, as Shearring notes: “We’re working hand in glove with Google on information architecture to make sure what we’re doing makes sense to Google.”
A delicate balance is required, though. After all, The Times is a legacy title – the oldest existing UK national newspaper – with a trove of content that increases daily, and nearly half a million subscribers, mostly in their mid-50s and older who may not be as readily adaptable to changes.
Shearring shared these and his other challenges, findings and future plans at our recent Digital Media Europe 2023 conference in Vienna.
The Problem: Finding Times content
One major issue has been that Times content can be hard to find – for both Google SEO, and for users on the website and the app. This is not because of the paywall, says Shearring, but primarily due to the site’s information architecture: “All our sections are hidden behind dropdowns; people can’t see them at all. The only thing you will see is our homepage – and the app doesn’t even have a homepage; it goes straight into the news.”
Case study: Searching for a star columnist
William Hague is a former UK parliamentarian, and The Times’ most popular and engaged columnist of 2022. “We know our subscribers love William Hague. So you would have thought that if you typed his name into Google, The Times, his author page on The Times, and his columns, which feature on the first page, would rank particularly high,” Shearring says.
Not so, though.
Our searches show what the Content Discovery team revealed: Hague’s column in The Times doesn’t rank high in searches, and doesn’t even appear on the site’s comment section.
The Great Reset: Using AI to retag millions of articles
Shearring kickstarted the process by re-examining how content was tagged – and using automation to rebuild.
“I realised that I can’t do anything that I want to do as a designer without all of our content being tagged properly,” he says. “It essentially allows us to do the most important thing: the automation of placement of content. It also helps us to track what people like, so we’ve done a bunch of AI to retrospectively tag millions of evergreen articles over the past few years.
“We’re changing the way navigation works and adding really deep, rich home pages and section fronts. We’re going to search, and we’re going to build on it. In fact, we’re looking at potentially using ChatGPT in search.”
Generating user feedback
The Content Discovery team collated and bundled content according to key Google search terms. Then they engaged readers in a series of Card Sorting surveys, seeking suggestions on where various content collections should fit.
This was done in three phases:
1) Open card sorting – simply placing content into various buckets.
2) Affinity mapping follows after, to test suggestions from the first round.
3) Closed card sorting is more focused: “Would you put that here or there?”
Tracking data by quantifying emotions
The Content Discovery Project team introduced a QX score (Quality of Experience) to try to quantify user feelings on navigating the site.
“We set over 1,000 users a series of tasks, like: ‘Find the top story in art,’ for example. We watch them to see what they did, where they clicked, how they tried to find what we asked them to find. We also listened to them, to their attitude, what they said and how they found it, which is really important.”
Reimagining the homepage
Problem: A rich, deep homepage with “probably far too many stories,” each story with a picture attached. Here, testing revealed that new users preferred different ways to navigate while existing users love to swipe through content.
Solution: Fewer, better visuals for a more compact homepage for speedier access to desired content – with the swipe intact.
What audiences can expect
A hamburger menu that drills down to secondary level navigation and a dedicated section.
Promotion of columnists and lifestyle content to ease searches for that content.
New formats: In the works is an AB test to embed Google web stories on the mobile web homepage, in full screen format – “a bit like a TikTok page that tells a story,” Shearring said.
Greater accessibility: “Just over 40% of our readers have some sort of visual disability, and that’s the ones we know about,” he added. “So we are building from the backend point of view from a tech point of view, we’re making sure the apps and the website are fully compatible with things like screen readers and other technology that allows people with these disabilities to be able to read or consume our content much easier.
Boosted visual appeal with clarity of text, and contrasting colours.
And, hopefully, a solution to the quandary of where to place the popular Obituary pages: “Our biggest surprise here is that there is no clear designation for Obituaries,” Shearring admitted to a question from the audience.
“We’re looking at decades behind a pretty hard paywall. We’re looking at bringing in softer paywalls, registration and all kinds of cheaper packs – and starting with puzzles,” – Tim Shearring
Online users will start to see the AB test, navigation and some of the new homepage design this summer.
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