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The redesign team consisted of roughly 30
developers, project and product managers and editorial producers.
For purposes of this case study, the core design team consisted
NPR embarked on a major redesign of its web presence in April
2008. Its existing web platform and content management system (CMS)
were outdated (it had been six years since our last redesign) and
failed to provide the functionality for delivery of NPR's signature
storytelling and news reporting. An outside firm—Schematic—was hired to provide the
initial visual design and information architecture, but the final
product was developed in-house via a collaborative effort among
NPR's editorial, user experience, design and application
Our existing site failed to meet audience needs or deliver a
news experience consistent with the NPR brand. Our goals for this
launch were to provide:
In the early stages of the redesign, we were working with
Schematic, moving linearly through the design process. Toward the
end of the initial design phase, Kinsey Wilson joined NPR as senior
VP of digital media, providing clear directives on how he wanted to
see the team operate to build upon Schematic's framework. The
in-house product design and development was implemented via Agile
development methodologies with a focus on participatory design; we
had two editorial producers embedded in our group for the duration
of the project. Their feedback was invaluable in helping us design
a system that met the needs of our news teams. This involved a
physical shuffling of a large number of staff so that the redesign
team could work in close proximity. This move happened in February
2009 with a launch date set for July 2009.
Under Kinsey's direction, we also took part in brainstorming
exercises; completely rethinking and restructuring important
elements of the information architecture that we felt would not
work for our editorial process and/or did not reflect a certain
“NPR-ness”; i.e., “wit and whimsy,” according to Dick Meyer,
The main limitations were production time and adjusting to a new
way of collaborating. We were unable to make as many improvements
to the CMS for launch as we would have liked, since we were
building upon our existing CMS framework.
During the earliest stages of the project, we conducted
interviews and developed user personas representing our existing
and potential audiences. The site architecture emerged from our
understanding of user goals for finding, hearing, reading, viewing,
and interacting with content. We performed several rounds of
usabilty tests; these studies validated and improved our navigation
model and guided our iterations of page design.
This was the first major project at NPR where Agile development
methodologies were used. It took a couple of cycles for the team to
adjust to this new way of working and to get into a good flow.
One of the main challenges was adapting to Agile methodologies.
We had to think on our feet, be nimble, iterative and willing to
fail often and fast. In some cases, we spent significant amounts of
time working through a problem only to realize that our initial
idea simply wasn't going to work. We had to be okay with scrapping
time-intensive, developed ideas and completely starting over when
Each one of us also had to be open-minded and empathetic. When
conflicts arose over how best to solve a problem, it was imperative
to remember that in the end, we were all working toward the same
goal. NPR hires incredibly smart people and we were always
challenging each other. This environment was highly conducive to
developing a great end product.
This project was also very complex in terms of the sheer number
of product users post-launch (there are more than 300 registered
users of our CMS) and the information architecture of the system on
both the front- and back-ends.
Because of the wide variety of editorial needs, newsrooms
present interesting challenges. Post-launch, we are entrusting
design tools to people who aren't trained designers. It continues
to be an exercise in the ultimate compromise between form and
In terms of design, NPR hasn't historically been a
design-focused organization and therefore lacked any established
standard design processes or documentation. One of the main
deliverables of the design group was a set of comprehensive style
guides: one for the design and development teams, another for our
editorial staff. We are focused post-redesign on a more visual way
of thinking; the style guide will help us maintain consistency and
educate the rest of the organization on the basics and importance
of good design.
Results so far have been very positive, although we are still in
the immediate post-launch phase. We created a flexible presentation
layer that allows our editorial, design and multimedia teams to
quickly create new layouts with minimal dev involvement. We also
developed a platform with a focus on visuals and photography,
allowing for visual NPR storytelling that equals in quality to our
renowned audio news delivery.
Our team has also received an incredible amount of positive
press for this project, having been written about by The New
York Times, Fast Company and the Poynter Institute (and
now AIGA). We're very proud of what our team has accomplished.
We learned a lot through experimentation with a working
prototype; we had a staging server set up that mirrored the actual
site and was pulling from live databases. This enabled editors to
publish actual content via the prototype, allowing us to identify
bugs in the design and editorial workflows before launch.
In any large, complicated project like this, having more time
would have been beneficial. However, given the time limitations, we
were forced to fail fast and really focus on the most important
goals of the redesign. This, I think, helped lead to a simple,
To other design practitioners, I would offer this advice: Design
with an open mind. Our project was successful because a group of
skilled, talented and passionate individuals were able to bring
their skills to the table to solve a problem, while simultaneously
recognizing and respecting the skills and talents of their
colleagues. In the end, we were all intensely passionate about
reaching the same goal.
Editor's note: On July 27, 2009, National Public Radio (NPR)
relaunched the website www.npr.org through the efforts of its in-house
design team and interactive agency Schematic. The case study above was
written at AIGA's request and coordinated by Sarah Zimmerman. Please
contact the editor if you would also like to provide a case study.
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