The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is behaving like a technology startup as it rebuilds its website for the first time in years.

The company is leaning on scientific research, data-driven decision making and public beta testing to produce a new online home that satisfies users and meets the paper’s goals. What does that look like, exactly?

I talked with Pat Scanlon, director of digital strategy and business development, about how it works and the lessons to be learned.

The beta version of ppgnow.com, open for testing.

Scanlon explained that in the alpha stage -- early testing during development -- the Post-Gazette formed diverse focus groups of five users each. Staff observed how the users tried to interact with the new site and used eye-tracking technology to map where they focused on pages. It assigned users specific tasks, like “find classifieds” or “find where you could advertise on our site,” and tracked how many steps it took them to get there.

That data informed some design revisions, Scanlon said, like breaking page elements up into scannable groups of three to five items and dissolving the oft-ignored right sidebar into individual ads and modules scattered around the other content.

This UserVoice overlay on the beta site shows popular feedback and offers a form to submit new comments.

Once the major decisions were made and the new site was in decent shape, the paper launched it into a public beta stage. A link at the top of post-gazette.com invites readers to try the new ppgnow.com, where they can see what’s coming and leave feedback through the UserVoice tool hovering on every page.

Other news organizations also are embracing the benefits of public beta testing. Last year, the BBC opened a beta version of its new home page a couple of months before it went live. That process, product manager James Thornett wrote, generated “three hundred comments on the blogs, over twenty thousand responses to our online survey, and over two and a half thousand direct emails.”

Here are some of the key lessons that other news organizations can take from what the Post-Gazette is doing.

Feedback fuels improvements. Opening the site before its final launch lets you invite direct feedback about what users like and dislike. In about a month of beta testing so far, the Post-Gazette has received over 780 comments and 2,700 votes supporting one or another comment, Scanlon said. From those, the paper learned that it needed to increase the font size of breaking news headlines on the home page so they would stand out from the time stamps, and that many people show a distaste for dividing articles into multiple pages. The beta process also brings indirect feedback -- the chance to look at analytics for patterns of site usage and see if your new design is meeting its goals.

Don’t overreact to feedback. Some people react negatively to any kind of change. Nothing you do will please them. “Relax,” Scanlon said. “Let the feedback come in, and [do] not react to each individual one. Look for trends.”

Betas ease the audience transition. Rather than flipping a switch one morning and jarring the audience, the Post-Gazette gives readers a couple months to see the new beta site and prepare before it launches in February.

Create departmental cooperation. Within a news organization, department silos are one major obstacle to a successful redesign. Different pockets of people in the technology team, the newsroom, sales, marketing and circulation all need input and understanding. The Post-Gazette relied on an assistant editor in the newsroom to lead decisions about organizing content on the new site, and the person leading the technical process spends a lot of time with the newsroom, sales, marketing and audience departments, Scanlon said. “Nobody is surprised; everybody has had their buy-in, and they all realize that they’re going to win some and they’re going to lose some.”

Defend changes with data. Testing and gathering data from users empowers better decision-marking, Scanlon said. It escapes subjective debates or claims tied to tradition. For example, data supported Scanlon’s decision to move links like “classifieds” out of the main navigation bar and up to the top of the page. “The argument that, ‘We’ve always had it over there and that’s where I expect to see it,’ doesn’t hold any water when you have 1,000 people who have user-tested it and say, ‘I don’t see it there, but I can see it up in the top left-hand corner.’”

Use the infrastructure for ongoing change. Openness, transparency and feedback have benefits beyond just a redesign process. Scanlon said the feedback tool will stay on the new site for a while even after it launches, and there will be ongoing testing and improvements. “We won’t do another big redesign like this ever again,” he said. “We will continue this process and make those changes all the way along, rather than one big thing every two or three years. This is an iterative process.”