News Organization: BuzzFeed
Person: Sabrina Majeed, product design manager.
Majeed studied communication design and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon, and worked at a financial software company as a product designer before coming to BuzzFeed. She had no previous experience as a journalist.
Setting: There are about fifty people on the content and publishing team, three of whom are designers. The team sits in BuzzFeed’s technology department. Before BuzzFeed’s move to new offices in February 2016, technology was in a different building than editorial; at that point, the two teams made a point to visit each other a few times a week and to communicate over Slack’s messaging system. Now that they’re all in the same building, the flow of visits is more fluid. “We see each other pretty much every day,” Majeed said.
The Process: Whenever BuzzFeed is considering launching a new app, Majeed organizes and runs a weeklong design sprint “to help validate the concept.” The design sprint method, credited to Google Venture design partner Jake Knapp and now widely used across different industries, involves a five-day “sprint” of designing, prototyping, and testing ideas.28 The design sprint is a successor of the design charrette, a similarly fast-paced process that has its roots in nineteenth-century Paris, when Ecole des Beaux Arts architecture professors would give assignments so difficult few students could finish them on time. Professors would send around “charrettes”—carts in French—to collect final drawings while students were still feverishly trying to finish them. (To miss the charrette was to fail.)29 “We do design sprints because it’s a way to validate whether a new venture is worth pursuing. Sometimes you have an intuition about something but no data, especially if you want to build something that doesn’t exist yet,” Majeed said. “With a design sprint you can very quickly build and test an actual thing to get people’s reactions. So it’s not just describing an idea to someone—it’s putting several possible solutions to a problem in their hands and seeing what people gravitate to.” For her design sprints, Majeed brings together three developers, three designers, three editorial staff, a product manager, and a facilitator. It was on her second design sprint—to create a quiz app—that Majeed realized the importance of having members of editorial involved. Editorial in a news product context serves the role of content expert, a representative of the people who know the domain of exploration better than anyone else. In this case, those from editorial—experts in quizzes—brought up the idea of people taking quizzes in pairs. What if people could send quizzes to their friends and get the results jointly, they wondered. They came up with quizzes such as: “Where should you and your best friend move?” The developers on the team knew that Facebook had recently opened up its API for innovation and that this idea of joint quizzes could be done through Facebook Messenger. The result was a new app for BuzzFeed called Quiz Chat. And while a new quiz app may not seem very important, the idea of multidisciplinary teams working across the newsroom to create successful new products is. Moreover, Majeed said, participating in design sprints has helped those on the editorial side think differently about what they produce. “It helps them remember the mindset and environment of the person who’s going to be reading their content,” she said.
During sprints, Majeed’s team takes over one of BuzzFeed’s open spaces for five days. There are lots of whiteboards and bulletin boards, and as the days pass, the walls fill up with storyboards, prototype sketches, and stickers for voting on prototypes. There are plenty of one-pagers on the pros and cons of other, possibly similar apps. Day one is an “information dump,” Majeed said, where the team reviews whatever data it has acquired that might be relevant. This can be tricky if the participants are trying to create something that doesn’t have a category yet, but the teams put together a competitive analysis as best they can. If it’s something sports-related, for example, they might collect data on how people consume sports news. The team then goes over editorial and design principles, and maps out the “basic flow” that a user would experience if presented with the hypothetical product. Day two is sketching. Everyone is involved, including editorial. Rounds of sketching are followed by critiques, followed by more rounds of sketching; everyone posts their sketches on the walls anonymously and votes on them with stickers. Sticker voting is a common method of narrowing down ideas. It’s important to note that the stickers aren’t simply about voting on a winner, but also a method for generating conversation around ideas in the winnowing process. As mentioned earlier, the interrogation of ideas is as important as their generation. Days three and four are prototyping and iterating. “The developers develop, the designers design, and editorial creates content that could be used in the app,” Majeed said. Day five is user testing. Majeed or the product manager facilitates the testing, and other members of the sprint observe from a viewing room and take turns coming into the actual testing room. Then the team reviews all the feedback and makes a list of key takeaways about the project in general, as well as specifics on the performances of the individual prototypes. Thereafter, they review with upper management and decide whether they have something that is investment-worthy.
This is a diagram of the design sprint process.30
When BuzzFeed decides to move forward with an app, the organization follows a model of “continuous deployment,” Majeed said. In other words, BuzzFeed is moving away from a single release to lots of tiny releases. “Internally, we can only validate so much,” Majeed affirmed. “This way, not all our eggs are in one basket when we ship.” Majeed doesn’t wait until something is perfect before taking it public. Instead, the testing and iterating that designers talk about so much simply continues once the product has been released. The digital environment makes this approach possible—at no point is the Internet ever sent to the printers and considered done. On a panel we did together at the Online News Association Conference in 2015, Shazna Nessa, director of journalism at the Knight Foundation, said the Internet means “the end of finished.”31 Majeed was very clear that her team does not follow any particular school of design. “Rather,” she said, “it’s a shared belief in the process itself.” When asked what she meant by “process,” she replied: “We care a lot about user research, and we care a lot about breaking down the actual problem we’re trying to solve . . . Identifying the problem you’re trying to solve is the key value of a designer.” Majeed added that people always make assumptions about what they think they want—and the designer is there to challenge those assumptions. If the assumption is right, challenging it forces the person to find data and a rationale to back it up, which is important information for the designer to have. Sometimes, assumptions are simply misleading. For example, a news executive wants a new app—because his competitors just built a new app. For Majeed, this isn’t a helpful starting place:
If you say, “I want to design a new app,” well, then the amount of possible solutions you have is a lot of different types of apps. But if you say, “The problem is I need a way to get people this news,” then you’re going to have a lot more possible solutions.
Identify the actual problem, not what you assume the problem is. It’s alright if the problem continues to be redefined throughout the process. Problem identification and solution creation go together.
Always include editorial. “Work with people who don’t do what you do” is a useful rule for design.32 In the journalistic context, including editorial is key. It’s good for the designers, and it’s good for the journalists.
“Content before chrome,” Majeed said. In other words, if you’re a designer in a newsroom, your design should be invisible. “Don’t get in the way of editorial,” she said.
Designers should have a say. Traditionally, designers have worked in a design-client model, with the client in charge and the designer there to provide a service that satisfies the client. That was before the outlandish success of tech companies that give design greater prominence—Apple, above all. The success of these companies influenced the process to include designers as key decision makers. “It’s a change from a client model to a stakeholder model,” Majeed said. “Designers need to be outspoken.”