The Washington Post's new Web experiment hopes to offer up some serendipity
Climb up three steps from The Washington Post's fifth-floor newsroom to the sixth floor, then head down two flights of steps via a wrought iron staircase. There, you'll find Team Rainbow. It's a collaborative place for development, news and tech, and it's where the Post's latest Web experiment came from.
Remember the office space in "Being John Malkovich?"
"Yeah, so we work there," said Julia Beizer, director of mobile product at the Post. Beizer works in this weird part of the Post's building with Cory Haik, executive producer and senior editor, digital news, with IOS developers, Web developers, Android developers, product designers, news designers, producers and editors.
On Monday, the Post announced that it's testing two versions of its Web and mobile site created by Team Rainbow. They're targeting social and mobile users who represent a growing audience for the Post. The two versions include some features and lessons learned from designing the Post's Kindle Fire app, Haik said. And they're trying to offer readers something you don't get with traditional article pages -- serendipity.
Like the Kindle Fire app, there's no homepage, Beizer said, no middleman to go through on the way to a story.
"When you're looking at the social/mobile audience, that's exactly what they do, too," Beizer said.
The test sites have national news, nothing local, and the stories there are custom-selected by editors, given new headlines and special layouts. While the Fire app is what Haik calls a 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. lean back experience, the test sites have about 200 stories at any given time and they're curated to offer a linear news experience.
"We want to give you a news bundle, if that makes sense," Haik said. So when Marco Rubio announces a presidential run, the Post might have 15 stories up in the course of five hours that run in a range of sections. In the linear bundle, a few strong pieces are put together in a deliberate way, with hand-selected photos and video. That process also came from the philosophy developed while building the Kindle Fire app. Readers can still find their way into the maze of stories that exist, but they can also follow the linear bundle's path that hopefully feels more satisfying than stumbling around the Web.
In both versions of the test site, readers will find two stories: one peeking out (that’s the peek view), and one adjacent to another story (that’s the pinch view).
"Serendipity in adjacency worked for news companies for years," Beizer said, "but it hasn't translated to digital."
With the Post's new experience, they're testing to see if people respond to a return to that adjacency, which, she said, is a challenge to translate to a mobile view.
With both versions, the question is this -- "Do either one of these get at that delight in the serendipity of seeing something you want to read right next to the article you're on?"
'Every day is quite different and it shapes the next one.'
Beizer and Haik have worked together for four years and this is how they've always worked -- trying to get the minimum viable product out as quickly as they can but also making sure they've made something worth people's time.
Haik came to the Post four years ago. Before that, she worked at The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune and the Seattle Times.
"My career is digital newspapering," Haik said. "I don't know if that's a word."
Beizer has worked at the Post for 10 years this summer, and, like Haik, has always on the digital side of things.
The two have tried similar experiments with smaller products, getting something out to readers quickly to see how they react and how they're adapting to different forms of storytelling. They tested this on the mobile Web in 2012 when they added an Instagram feed curated from a hashtag to the mobile homepage.
"It was like this huge coup," Haik said. "We were ecstatic about that."
In their time together, the new test sites are their biggest experiment so far. But the concept is the same.
"It's just very iterative and that's just the beauty of it," Haik said. "Every day is quite different and it shapes the next one."
They've also paired news designers with UX designers "and that's been a really cool marriage to see happen," Beizer said. The two said they've spent their careers in digital jobs where the CMS dictated where things went. Haik hired news designers with print backgrounds, though, and brought them onto the digital side.
"They know how to tell stories," Beizer said. "The product designers, their strength is 'how do I move someone through this experience in the easiest way possible? Those are both design skills but they’re very, very different. The combination of those different kinds of design thinking have really lit up our products in a different way."
"I think the combination of these two are the secret sauce."
'Somebody said that they did not hate it on the Internet.'
The Post will get feedback on the test sites in a number of ways, including heavily monitoring social media and customer service channels, but the majority of feedback comes via analytics, Beizer said. The Post uses Chartbeat for day-to-day metrics so editors can help optimize presentation. They use Adobe's Omniture to see how long people are staying and how many pages they consume. They use Splunk to measure things including how long it takes pages to load, and the Post has a homegrown A/B testing platform called Darwin that serves different sites to different people.
"The great thing about tests like this is you launch and you are buried, buried in data, and that's a good thing," she said. It can be hard to tell stories out of the data right away, but within a few days, stories should emerge that show how readers react to the two versions. If there's not enough of a differential, they'll add more tweaks.
And they have gotten some immediate feedback already.
"Somebody said that they did not hate it on the Internet," Haik said.
Another user, through customer service, didn't love it thanks to the experience of clicking the test site with a mouse. That feedback sparked a conversation with the product team, who'd been focusing on the mobile and social experience, Beizer said, "and we thought, is there something else we can do there to make that a better experience for her?"
"We also have a 'do we love it?' test," Haik said.
In the beginning, the team didn't love how the two-column presentation worked on mobile, and they're still not sure if it will last there, but the more they use the things they're creating and develop a relationship with them, the more the team can decide if they love it.
"Does Julia love it? Does Cory love it? Does the newsroom love it? Do users love it?" Haik asked. It's hard to quantify, but the actual relationship with something created across departments is a factor.
"If people love it, it matters, actually, because we're all working on it together," Haik said.
So. Does she love it?
'...Invent ourselves out of tight corners'
So when will the Post's experiment be done? There is no done, Beizer said.
"There is no timeline on any of these experiments fundamentally."
They don't know yet what the results will be, that depends on what users want, Haik said, "but it's not gonna look the same. None of it."
Shailesh Prakash, chief technology officer at the Post, told his team to "invent ourselves out of tight corners," Beizer said. So they'll continue tweaking, improving, learning and using what they've learned across platforms.
It's like the Golden Gate Bridge, Haik said. By the time painters reach the end, they have to turn around and start again. This probably isn’t how The Washington Post will look on the Web or on mobile in, say, six months.
But it does feel good, she said, for what they've created to be out in the world. And the site will look different.
"It's not finished, that's for sure," Haik said said. "So the timeline is like, hmmm, today. And then forever."