My first project upon starting at NewsNow was the largest redesign the product had seen in more than 15 years. This was one of the things that attracted me to this role, and it gave me a fantastic opportunity to take ownership of a large scale design project and attain a deep understanding of the product from the outset.
Over its 20+ year history, NewsNow has been under constant, iterative development. As with any long-term project, especially one that had started life in 1997, sooner or later a refactor becomes necessary. In this case, refactoring the design was equally as important as refactoring the codebase. Additionally, there were plans to develop large improvements to the product’s functionality, which would necessarily disrupt aspects of both the codebase and the design. The existing design was simply not flexible enough to accommodate these new developments, meaning that the product was in need of a fresh coat of paint, and maybe a slight rethink of the walls and foundations underneath, on which these new features could be built.
My role on this project was as the sole designer, front end developer (working as part of the development team), and to work alongside the COO and CEO on product management.
The new design would need to give the product a much needed aesthetic lift, bringing the look and feel in line with contemporary standards. The design would also need to adhere to accessibility standards to ensure good usability, and while we set no rigid rule on WCAG accessibility standards, we aimed for AA accessibility where possible. The design would also need to be modular, flexible, and scalable, to accommodate new and complex features later on. Finally, due to the diverse nature of the userbase, specifically those in English-speaking countries in the developing world, the product would need to retain its high level of browser compatibility, offering an improved experience to people browsing on feature phones, using Opera Mini with extreme data saving enabled.
Embarking on a project of this scale, especially as a new member of the team, was no small feat. I took time to analyse the existing product in detail, speaking with members from all areas of the business, including development, editorial, and senior management, to get a full and comprehensive understanding of the business, the product, and the underlying technology.
Beyond this, I felt it important to look at the product in the wider context of the industry, to see how we might want to position ourselves relative to other news aggregators, publishers, and social platforms. NewsNow is unique in this sense; it is a news aggregator that performs similar functions to those by the likes of Google, Apple, and Yahoo, but the number of individual topics and the number of headlines on a given page is more akin to the likes of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.
Reddit, specifically, shares many parallels with NewsNow. Firstly, the Information Architecture is inherently similar: Long feeds of headlines, for a near-endless variety of topics, algorithmically sorted and able to be reordered by chronology, popularity, or relevance. In addition, Reddit had also recently embarked on a large redesign project, moving away from a dense, text-based layout that had accumulated a dedicated and loyal userbase, just like that of NewsNow. On the basis of these parallels, I embarked on a competitor analysis project of sorts, to understand the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of Reddit’s redesign, charting their roadmap, digging up metrics, some of which were kindly supplied to me by subreddit moderators, and drawing actionable conclusions which we were able to implement in our own redesign process.
At this stage, I would have liked to conduct some user research, to build an understanding of user demographics, usage habits, motivations, and pain points, but unfortunately, this was not something that had been done on the product before, and thus a lack of time and resources made this impractical. We did, however, manage to conduct a series of user interviews prior to the initial roll-out, which helped inform some later design decisions.
Equipped with the learnings from my research phase, I was able to work collaboratively with senior management to specify the scope and deliverables for the design project, and within the development team to create a scope and task backlog for the technical requirements. We used Asana to manage the project, in which I constructed a set of timelines with clear dependencies between design and development, accounting for testing and code cleanup, with a set launch date for our private, opt-in beta. We also took learnings from the Reddit case study to help inform our process, including the implementation of a system to manage user feedback, a public blog post to inform users of upcoming changes, and a staggered rollout to ensure feature-parity prior to the site-wide launch.
The nature of this project did not necessarily lend itself to a strict goal-setting framework, as it was not intended to drive any specific metric. Rather, the success of the project would be measured in our resulting ability to scale and develop the product in the future, and the retention of our core user base.
The design strategy for this project was rather straightforward, conceptually. Firstly, I planned to employ atomic design principles to create a modular, component-based design system in Figma, with standardised tokens for measurements, colours, and typography, and context-agnostic, BEM-style components for all UI elements, templates, and pages. Secondly, the design would be carefully tested against WCAG accessibility guidelines to ensure that colour contrast ratios, font sizes, and interactive elements were sufficiently distinguished and usable.