Rules of Engagement

I’ve been thinking a lot about User Experience recently. What sounds like just another buzzword at a closer look turns out to be one of these magical concepts that decide about the success or failure of such different things as websites and relationships. (I’m not going to elaborate on the latter.)

Problem is, there is no such thing as magic. So basing your product development on user-based experience is not a simple ‘just-add-water’ type recipe. It is hard work, demanding lots of empathy, continuous attention and the ability to abandon established convictions and do experiments.

The CJR article about Talking Points Memo that I recommended yesterday proves the importance of this point: The success of TPM depends not only on the original quality of the content. It is based on a very close link between Josh Marshall and his team and their readers, an evolving relationship to the benefit of the user of the site.

In a presentation in July at our biennial “OJ-Tag” conference I talked about the two-year-old “Experience Study” of the Readership Institute in Chicago. The institute developed an ‘experience-based’ newspaper prototype for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, trying to make the paper more attractive to young readers. The researchers tried to identify types of user experience that would result in an engagement of the reader. See how even this concept already points in the direction of interactivity?

There is a lot to learn from the Study’s results, these people have developed some very interesting and even funny ideas – like basing the editorial division of labor not on only classical topical departments, but also on the different previously identified positive user experiences. So there were specific teams overseeing the production of content that:

  • gave the users something to talk about;
  • looked out for their personal and civic interests;
  • turned them on by surprise and humour.
The prototype turned out to be highly successful. One item that the readers especially liked was a ‘need-to-know’ box on the front page, presenting five core news items the knowledge of which would make them look smart amongst their peers.

A benefit of this development strategy is that it leads to highly audience-specific, original products. I think German online media could use a healthy dose of this pioneering spirit. We need new products with convincing profiles, not another wave of those commodity-type Spiegel Online clones we have recently seen spreading across the country.