About Experience Projects

BuzzFeed News Redesign: Research

The BuzzFeed News team and BuzzFeed tech team recently took on the task of rebranding our News arm. Other brands, such as Tasty and As/Is had successfully managed to branch apart from the classic BuzzFeed brand, but News was still quite closely associated with it, mainly from a visual and UX perspective.

In the past, we argued that this worked in our favor (attaching the BuzzFeed & BuzzFeed News brand). However, our reporters were breaking impressive and credible stories, and ultimately we didn’t feel that the brand matched the quality of the work the team was producing.

The BuzzFeed homepage (first image) looked almost identical to the BuzzFeed News page (second image), barring some minor elements

To challenge this hypothesis, our marketing & research team did a deep dive into how readers perceive BuzzFeed News. They partnered with Lucid, a data software company focused on market research and business insights, to better understand this. More specifically, they conducted a study to understand our competitive brand KPI’s, the perception between BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News, social attribution, and different drivers of brand preference.

The findings were interesting, yet not wholly unpredictable. The primary challenge we found ourselves up against was continually trying to balance trustworthiness and credibility with our unique and innovative editorial voice.

There were a few high-level highlights:

  • BuzzFeed News is not seen as a standalone brand. News perception currently sits at “news articles from BuzzFeed” vs. understanding of “BuzzFeed News” as a distinct brand.
  • Relevancy and entertainment does not always equal credibility. BuzzFeed excels in entertainment and discovery metrics, but that isn’t translating into credibility for BuzzFeed News stories.
  • Online and social news lack distinction in general. Consumer perception of online news is fuzzy between content aggregators (Google, Facebook, Twitter) and content creators (editorial news outlets) due to modern distribution methods.

The Opportunity

Concluding the market research, we drafted a formal problem statement:

BuzzFeed News is not perceived as a premium and fully trusted destination for news by consumers and advertisers as the experience and design is arguably too tied to "classic" BuzzFeed. Creating a separate experience for BuzzFeed News (that is recognizably distinct from BuzzFeed’s entertainment content) will help position us within the broader landscape of other news outlets. Doing so will increase the perceived credibility of the brand and content.

Competitive Audit

Because the problem space was vague, we decided to dedicate time for research and distill down the areas to focus in on. To look at both traditional and non-traditional media spaces, we conducted a brief competitive audit.

The market research helped us understand the “what”; that we’re not seen as credible or distinct. The audit, however, helped us to uncover some of the “why” to these two major themes. By looking at our competitors and matching those experiences up to the data from the research, we were able to pull out a few key points:

What makes a brand credible or trustworthy?

Transparent Journalism and Attribution: showcasing editor beats and putting more focus on where journalists are reporting from, including surfacing documents to the public (e.g. a dossier, PDF embeds) and editorially curated content (“Editor Picks”)

The Intercept freely cites their sources and links to them in a prominent way in order to promote transparency

Awareness Over Time: The New York Times and The Washington Post been around for decades. Other organizations like ABC and Fox News have a cable TV presence, alluding to awareness on multiple platforms. There also seemed to be a correlation between awareness and a “newspaper”-like design layout, alluding to print and traditional media

User Experience and Content Adjacency: Avoiding elements that dilute trust, such as 3rd party recommended content modules (Outbrain, for example), or disruptive and irrelevant advertising. Showing entertainment articles next to serious news also diluted trust.

An Outbrain module positioned in close proximity to original news content

BuzzFeed News content placed directly next to the less serious “classic BuzzFeed” content

What makes an experience feel distinct or premium?

Distinct Branding: Custom typography, memorable logos and taglines, and a consistent art direction

Innovative storytelling: Consideration of sequential stories, interactivity, and custom treatments that reflect the narrative

An interactive NYT Magazine story

Editorial voice and content strategy: Using a unique tone of voice that’s complemented by its user experience and visual design. Paying attention to how readers want to engage with content. A good example of this is Axios’ choice to highlight the most important content of the day and giving the reader a summarized version.

Design Sprints

We used those findings to fuel design sprints planned for the following weeks. The purpose of the sprints was to help drive ideation around the brand and its credibility.

In order to represent the cross-functional teams involved, we included engineers, reporters, other product designers, and marketing folks in the sprints to capture each individual’s unique perspective. This was much briefer and more condensed than a traditional sprint. The agenda consisted of the prompt overview, idea generation, crazy 8’s, presentation, silent critique, and then discussion.

We framed the exercise with these open-ended questions:

  • What needs to be true in order for someone to feel connected to or affected by the news they consume?
  • What makes an experience feel credible? What are the trust signals?
  • What needs to be true in order for an experience to feel prestigious or premium? Worth their time and attention?

...and used the following prompts to drive Crazy 8’s and ideation process:

  • How might we convince a first-time user that we’re a credible news source?
  • How might we foster an emotional connection through our everyday news articles?

We executed crazy 8’s and ideating in a way that worked for both in-office and remote employees. A Google Slides deck was used to frame the exercise and we asked participants to take a picture of their sketches and paste them on a slide.

A few reoccurring themes/ideas that came out of the sprint:

  • Highlight our original reporting and showcase editors by building out reporter pages and giving bylines more context
  • Invest in article previews and explore ways to tell a story in small, quick digestible pieces. Explore a TL;DR experience vs. a "lean back" experience
  • Utilize more interactive or immersive ways to consume a story, specifically when it can compliment the narrative
  • Enable inline comments and sharing functionality (what if you could highlight and share any part of an article?)

Because this was mainly for brainstorming ideas, we didn’t execute a traditional sprint or build prototypes based on these ideas. The brainstorm was, however, useful in influencing some proof-of-concept sketches that we could get in front of stakeholders. The plan was to show the best ideas to stakeholders (based on the themes and our hypothesis), and then get out into the real world to test in front of users.

Presenting to Stakeholders

We brought our early research, opinions, and concepts together to present the different directions from the sprint to our stakeholders. Because we didn't have a concrete direction going into the meeting, we spent the majority of the time talking through the assumptions we were hoping to validate and our low-fidelity “proof-of-concept” ideas.

The goal of the meeting was to get a conversation going and learn more about what our stakeholders wanted to get out of this project.

A few samples of the low-fidelity ideas we presented to stakeholders

When we presented our work, the stakeholders (the Editor in Chief and Director of News) weren’t completely blown away. There were ideas that they were drawn to, specifically around highlighting “beats” and reporters, but overall they were looking for a brand refresh rather than new functionality.

They had a great point: if we want to change how people perceive us, we need to start at the most obvious level – the brand layer. They argued that shiny functionality and usability changes wouldn’t change our brand’s reputation or others' impression of BuzzFeed News, at least not from the start.

Narrowing Focus

Alas, all was not lost. We were able to use that meeting to distill down what was working and understand what our stakeholders valued:

  • Brand: focus on a brand refresh and explore what will help us stand apart from the competition (and even to stand apart from the BuzzFeed entertainment brand)
  • Dynamic Layouts: consider how we present the news, and how that might change based on what kind of “news” day it is (breaking news, social news, elections, etc)
  • Hierarchy and Information Architecture: we recognized the need to clean up our information architecture, particularly around tags and categories. At the time, there were multiple ways to categorize and tag content, which posed negative effects downstream on our users. It was difficult to recommend relevant content based on what article the user was reading, because we weren’t confident in our taxonomy or tagging system. We also didn’t have a great way to highlight the different areas we were reporting on, such as Politics, World News, Tech, and LGBT news.

We felt that by improving the tagging system and taxonomy we could build an experience that allowed for better discovery and ultimately a stronger reputation.

Fleshing Out the IA

The tech team was under the impression that we would be working with a brand team, either in-house or with contractors, for the rebrand. This was the case for other launches at BuzzFeed, and it was something being talked about with Senior leadership. Because it was still up in the air, however, I chose to focus my efforts on what I was certain we needed – mapping out the contents of the News destination and the information architecture between BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed News.

What components should the experience include? How do we arrange for them? How do they change based on what kind of news day it is? For example, how does the page change if we drop a major investigation? What about breaking news?

Mapping the different elements to consider across the news experience, including types of mixed media and functionality

How a page might change based on what kind of news day it is

We also focused on cleaning up our taxonomy and organization. Despite from the multiple ways we're doing this under the hood (tags, BuzzFeed badges, and sections), we wanted to simplify the canonical tag experience for the user.

Basecamp was a great way to share ideas with tech and editorial teams

Fixing our tagging system was also a win for reporters. Without needing to manual curate anything, we could effortlessly surface packages of related content. If a package showed up in the homepage feed, it could include a link back to the "parent" tag (or category) page for readers who were interested in more. For example, if our tagging worked properly, an editor could easily look at all pieces of content tagged “Women’s March” or “Pride 2018”, narrow it down to a few specific pieces, and then package those curated stories up to display on the home feed. This was something our editors had long been asking for, but had never been prioritized.

With proper and canonical tagging, we would be able to “package” tagged content and link to the parent tag page for readers who were interested in more.

After we came to a consensus around tagging and IA, we shifted to focus back on the brand. I've broken out the second part of this project, the visual identity explorations, into a separate case study, which you can find here.

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