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Storytelling, UX, and 6.5M subscribers — an example from the New York Times

This morning I woke up to a notification from the New York Times. Just like any other morning, I dismissed them (recently, the news that comes through aren’t very conducive to a positive Monday morning) but one caught my attention — it read “What happens when you sneeze on a subway?” and I got excited. Not because of the content, no. I was excited because, as a paying subscriber, I know that these types of stories will be engaging, animated, and valuable.

This story was no different.

This story was a prime example of why you should pay attention to NYT. It’s not just their high-quality journalism (did you know they have the most Pulitzer Prizes ever?) but it’s the way they tell stories that gets me to continue paying $400+ every year.

I invite you to take a look at it through my eyes as a design leader who has dedicated her life to helping companies understand one simple rule:

Best UX = Revenue

NYT made the audience experience their number one priority. NYT also reported profit of $140 million on revenue of $1.81 billion in 2019. This is no coincidence; it’s a formula to success.

If you want to achieve your business potential, focus on your purpose and create a brand experience that amplifies that purpose.

The New York Times purpose is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.

For NYT every single story is the brand experience. The content, as well as its presentation, matters. In this case, they used some of the best UX practices, coupled it with technology, and were able to tell the story in a way that enhances society.

1. Using parallax effect to control the narrative

To me, NYT is outstanding in the way they use Parallax in their articles to progressively guide the user through the narrative while keeping information precise and concise. In this example, they did an amazing job keeping the focus on the train car, while highlighting different aspects of how the ventilation system works.

2. Using colours to guide the user

NYT treats stories like maps — they carefully guide the audience through the narrative, while introducing different elements into it as reference points. Every good map needs a legend, and NYT realizes this better than any other news outlet. And, like any other legend, it’s colour-coded. Look at the way they introduced different elements of the ventilation system, colour-coded them and provided visual illustration that is consistent, making it super easy and visual for the audience to follow the narrative.

3. Progressive disclosure

Anyone roughly familiar with UX design most likely knows the concept of progressive disclosure; in basic terms, it refers to the principle of releasing information in smaller chunks that are sequenced to allow users to receive information in a way that is optimized for perception and retention. Said differently — don’t tell the user everything at once.

This story is a fantastic demonstration of this principle — information is presented in smaller bits, with lots of white space and relevant imagery to illustrate the point. The sequence of information is also user-friendly, the next point is built on the previous point, there is a logical flow of new data.

Notice that the 1st point is still on the page — being used as a reference for the next piece of information that showed up

4. User controls the speed of narrative

We all have different velocities of information perception, so allowing the user to control the speed of information flow, is key to good storytelling.

5. Keeping user entertained

In this article there are 4 distinctly different methods of showing information:

  • plain text

  • static image

  • an image with animated, user-controlled elements

  • an image with an auto-play video

This keeps the user entertained visually, and, as a result, keeps them engaged with the article for longer.

Looks cool, so what?

What NYT does with their stories isn’t just purely for coolness factor; it’s not even for engagement with the story. This approach feeds into very tangible financial KPIs — (which I don’t know for sure what they are, but if I had to take an educated guess I’d say are): time on page, ad impressions, paying users, churn rate, article completion rate, etc.

These, in turn, end up feeding into the overall performance as an organization: just last week, NYT passed 6.5 million subscriptions, with 5.7 million being digital-only.

And just to hammer that point home, consider these numbers.

  1. Even during global pandemic, the New York Times Company Net Income in 2nd quarter of 2020 declined year on year by -5.99 %, slower than the average decrease reported by company’s competitors of -42.47 %.

  2. The NYT stock price has been on an upward trajectory ever since they launched their mobile app in 2015:

To maintain that kind of performance, it’s not only the quality of stories you tell, but also how you tell them. NYT clearly knows how to do both.

“We’ve proven that it’s possible to create a virtuous circle,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement, “in which wholehearted investment in high-quality journalism drives deep audience engagement, which in turn drives revenue growth and further investment capacity.”


Why this matters on a global scale

2020 has been a rollercoaster, am I right? The arrival of COVID-19 has set off a chain of events that will continue playing out for years, if not decades, to come. We are watching established structures and systems crumble in the face of this new curveball; it’s been shaking up everything from political frameworks to societal norms to the way we work, socialize, and make decisions. So, in these times, more than ever, we have the unequivocal necessity for high-quality journalism that uses data and tells the stories about why it matters. Design plays a fundamental role in this — it can either amplify or diminish the story, it can either spread or be ignored. To all the designers and agencies out there: let’s make sure we use our skills in making a positive difference.


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