Design Problems and Solutions at The New York Times

As online media outlets compete furiously for eyeballs, the NYTimes.com design director discusses features that have, and haven’t, worked for the website.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What obstacles do you face in keeping the Times website elegant and readable

Khoi Vinh: Well, I think the obstacles are the same as the opportunities, is the way we like to look at them. You have this really powerful technological infrastructure that can do really tremendous things. At the same time, it's never going to be as flexible as we'd like it to be. Just by nature of web technology. So, we can deliver news across the globe in a matter of seconds or minutes. And that's pretty amazing. And we can create really fascinating tools for our users to take advantage of. At the same time, those technologies don't allow us to retool the appearance with the presentation of every piece of content in exactly the way that we would like. There's a real inherent limitations to the tools. So, it's two sides of the same coin.

Question: What’s a specific design complaint you’ve gotten from readers, and how have you responded? 

Khoi Vinh: Sure, we often get reader feedback of all types, whether positive or negative, no matter what we do. Let me think. There are times when things are really obvious to us and we really try to design them in such a way that we think will be obvious to readers and users who have only casual familiarity with the site. We'll get feedback that says they have no idea that what we intended was actually the case. And I'm trying to think of an example off the top of my head right now. We'll occasionally add an alternative use to the home page, new experimental presentations of our top content. Features like Times Wire, we had one called Times Extra, we had a social networking layer called Times People. And these are things we spent a lot of time trying to make as intuitive and as easy to use as possible, and sometimes we hit the mark and a lot of times people will ask us, what does this thing do that we have here. They have no idea, no understanding of it and it just sort of blows us out of the water that they can be so -- that what we designed could be as unintuitive as the reader might be interpreting it as. So, that always, I think, that's the hardest and most illuminating parts of the job is just really constantly reminding yourself that what's obvious to you is not obvious to the users.

Question: What’s a design solution you’ve introduced to the Times that you’re particularly proud of?

Khoi Vinh: Well, I'll tell you about a big project that we finished up on last year. We have a luxury magazine that comes with the Sunday paper called T. And that covers men's fashion, women's fashion, design, travel, living, that sort of stuff. Really high end luxury and we had a site that we launched in 2007, I believe, that we felt pretty good about it at the time, but it quickly became apparent that it was too expensive to produce and it wasn't really yielding the results that we were looking for. So, we worked most of last year, 2009, really overhauling that site and moving it away from what had been a presentation that was really centered around what appeared in print to a brand new kind of user experience that really emphasized what we say -- how we saw users interacting with the content. So, instead of showing all of the photography and the photo spread and feature stories as the sole main gateway to that site, we moved to a new kind of experience where the content is a bit more atomized. You can access it from many different ways and we're really emphasizing the blog and the site as the major access point because what we saw was that the users responded to our blog even though it was not the main access point. They responded to its timeliness and the brevity of the content. And so we completely oriented the site around that and that was something I really pushed for hard in late 2008, early 2009, and we were able to launch it last year.

Recorded on March 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen