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Engaging​ ​staff:​ ​User​ ​experience​ ​studies are​ ​not​ ​just​ ​for​ ​audience​s

This​ ​ironic​ ​image​ is a classic​ ​reference​ ​in​ ​UI/UX design​ ​—​ ​the​ ​practice​ ​of​ ​designing​ ​for​ ​optimal​ ​digital user​ ​interfaces (UI) and​ ​user​ ​experiences (UX).​ ​Newsrooms​ ​have​ ​adopted​ ​these ​practices​ ​to​ better understand​ ​their​ ​audience’s​ digital ​behavior. Many of those principles can inform​ how physical ​spaces are​ ​designed​ in technology-driven workspaces.​

User​ ​experience​ ​design​ ​is​ ​fundamentally practical​ ​in​ ​nature, ​focusing ​less​ ​on​ ​vision​ ​and more​ ​on​ ​problem​-​solving.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​the​ ​first​ ​steps​​ ​before initiating​ ​a​ ​major​ ​remodeling​ ​effort​ ​is​ ​to​ ​identify​ ​the​ ​problems you’re​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​solve.​ ​

While​ ​managers​ ​and​ ​architects​ ​may​ ​have their​ ​own​ ​ideas​ ​about​ ​what​ ​needs​ to be fixed​,​ ​all good​ ​design​ ​begins​ ​with​ understanding​ ​the​ ​user. Human-centered​ ​design​​ ​is​ ​a​ ​useful​ ​framework​ ​that​ ​prioritizes user​ ​needs​ ​as​ ​the​ ​basis​ ​for​ ​any​ ​design​ ​process and ​expresses​ ​​empathy​ for​ ​the​ ​people​ ​you’re​ ​designing​ ​for.

Listening to the user

Not​ ​every​ ​newsroom​ ​interviewed​ ​for​ ​this​ ​report​ ​used​ ​a design​ ​agency​ ​to​ survey staff​ ​and stakeholders,​ ​nor​ ​did​ ​they​ ​necessarily​ ​use​ ​formal​ ​​“UX,” “human-centered,”​ ​or​ ​“design​ ​thinking”​​ ​methodology. But user​ ​needs​ ​were​ ​at​ ​the​ ​forefront​ ​of​ ​their decision​making, and each​ ​​gauged​ these ​needs​ ​in​ their own ​ways.

​​“We’re​ ​a​ ​newspaper,” said David​ ​Shribman​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Pittsburgh​ ​Post​-Gazette,​ ​revealing​ his ​no-nonsense​ ​approach​.​ ​“This​ ​was​ ​not​ ​a​ ​graduate​ ​school exercise​ ​in​ ​relationship​ ​between​ ​light​ ​and​ ​words​ ​typed​ ​per minute.​ ​We​ ​didn’t​ ​engage​ ​social​ ​scientists​ ​to​ ​determine​ ​ratios​ ​of empty​ ​space​ ​to​ ​creative​ ​thought.”

However, empathy​ ​for​ ​his​ ​colleagues​ ​was​ ​at​ ​the​ ​root​ ​of​ ​the​ company’s ​relocation​ ​and remodel, in which they opened up their new newsroom to allow for clean sight lines and plenty of light. ​“We​ ​just​ ​wanted​ ​a​ ​new​ ​place​ ​where our​ ​employees​ ​could​ ​be​ ​productive​ ​and​ ​happy,” he said.

The company couldn’t afford an expensive, involved planning process.​ He​ ​listened​ ​to ​his ​newsroom staff​ ​and​ ​worked closely with Adrian Norris, creative director at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, who​ ​had​ travelled​ extensively​ ​researching​ newsroom design​.

“We​ ​ordered​ ​a​ ​chicken​ ​dinner,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​mapped​ ​it​ ​out​ ​on​ ​a​ ​piece of​ ​paper,”​ ​Shribman​ ​said​.​ ​“And​ ​it​ ​works spectacularly.”

At Treasure Coast News, Managing Editor Adam Neal said a grassroots approach seeded a shift to digital, which was spurred by Gannett’s purchase of the company in 2016. He thought the staff would be apprehensive after the purchase, so he wanted to make sure they were behind any changes to the newsroom.

“Corporate said, ‘Here are some tools,’” Neal said, but beyond that, the redesign was led by a committee of non-managers. That created a sense of ownership among the primary users of the space. “It didn’t feel like another corporate or management initiative,” he said. ​

We​ ​used market​ ​research,​ ​we​ ​used​ ​stats,​ ​analytics,​ ​we​ ​did​ ​newsroom surveys,​ ​all​ ​of​ ​that …​ but​ ​there​ ​is​ ​no​ ​substitution​ ​for sitting​ ​down​ ​with​ ​someone​ ​over​ ​coffee​ ​for​ ​an​ ​hour.

In​ ​addition​ to seeking input from staff,​ ​the committee and managers​ ​listened​ ​closely​ ​to​ ​their​ ​audience.

“Talking​ ​to​ ​our​ ​readers​ ​was​ ​essential,”​ ​Neal said.​ ​“We​ ​used market​ ​research,​ ​we​ ​used​ ​stats,​ ​analytics,​ ​we​ ​did​ ​newsroom surveys,​ ​all​ ​of​ ​that …​ but​ ​there​ ​is​ ​no​ ​substitution​ ​for sitting​ ​down​ ​with​ ​someone​ ​over​ ​coffee​ ​for​ ​an​ ​hour.”​

The ​committee​ ​of​ ​reporters​ ​and​ ​photographers ​spent​ ​about​ ​six​ ​months​ ​cultivating​ ​ideas​ ​and​ ​listening to​ ​readers. But they​ ​still​ ​had​ ​jobs ​to​ ​do.​ ​To​ ​​stay​ ​on​ ​track, the​ ​committee​ devote​d ​an​ ​occasional​ ​full​ ​day​ ​to plan​ ​as​ ​a​ ​team.​ It’s​ ​always​ ​a challenge​ ​to​ ​step​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​daily​ ​workflow,​ ​Neal​ ​said,​ but it was necessary​ ​to​ focus on the redesign.

The​ ​Center​ ​for​ ​Investigative​ ​Reporting​ ​created​ ​a​ ​whole-staff committee​ ​to​ ​figure​ ​out​ ​what​ ​they​ ​wanted​ ​out​ ​of​ ​their​ ​2016 relocation​ ​and​ ​remodel.​ ​Unfortunately​ ​the​ top​ ​item​ ​on their​ ​wish​ ​list​ ​—​ ​being​ ​close​ ​to​ ​public​ ​transportation​ ​— wasn’t ​possible.​ ​Due to expensive​ ​real​ ​estate​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Bay​ ​area, they​ ​​ended​ ​up sacrificing​ ​that​ ​for​ ​a​ ​“collaboration​-​inspiring” space​ ​they​ ​could​ ​afford, said ​​managing​ ​director​ ​Christa​ ​Scharfenberg.

“It​ ​is​ a ​little​ ​off​ ​the​ ​beaten​ ​path,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​was​ ​really​ ​cool​ ​[and] within​ ​our budget,”​ ​​Scharfenberg​ said ​of the​ former ​pipe​ ​factory​ ​in​ ​Emeryville, a few miles southwest of ​their​ ​previous​ ​location​ ​in​ ​downtown​ ​Berkeley. This​ ​bright​, ​dramatic​ ​space​ ​offered a blank canvas ​for​ creating ​the​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​cool​ ​space​ ​they​ ​wanted.

One of the center’s ​board​ ​members​ ​connected​ ​them​ ​with​ ​Ken​ ​Fulk, ​who recently​ ​made​ ​Elle​ ​Decor’s​ ​2017​ ​​“A-list”​​ ​issue.

“He​ ​donated​ ​his​ ​company’s​ ​time​ ​to​ ​create​ ​the​ ​design​ ​and​ ​layout for​ ​free,”​ ​Scharfenberg said. They were “very​ ​respectful of​ ​our​ ​limited​ ​resources.” She​ ​said ​newsrooms should cull​ ​their​​ ​communities​ ​for​ ​creative​ ​talent​ ​to​ ​aid​ ​in the​ir redesigns.

When the Center for Investigative Reporting moved into a former factory, the designer incorporated several lounge areas with “home-like” furnishings. These seating areas soften the industrial setting and provide alternative places to work throughout the day. (Photo by Rachel de Leon)

Don’t just listen to your users — observe them

For​ ​Zach Seward​ ​and​ his ​crew,​ ​nurturing​ ​culture​ ​is​ ​at​ ​the​ ​heart​ ​of​ ​Quartz’s success. So​ paying attention to ​user​ ​behavior​ ​—​ ​staff​ ​needs, personality​ ​quirks,​ ​personal​ ​interests​ ​and​ ​styles​ ​of experimentation​ ​—​ ​was​ ​essential​ ​to​ ​making​ ​their​ new space work. Impressed​ ​by​ ​what​ Desai​ ​Chia Architecture​ had​ ​done​ ​for​ ​the​ ​tech​ ​incubator ​​Betaworks​​, Seward selected ​the firm to lead Quartz’s ​2016​ ​relocation​ ​and​ ​remodel.

Desai​ ​Chia​ ​started​ ​by​ surveying, observing and listening to ​staff​ ​over​ ​several​ ​days. The firm​ ​picked​ ​up​ ​a​ ​few​ ​themes​ and​​ ​recognized beloved​ ​elements​ they​ should​ ​retain from the old space.​ ​The staff​ ​​documented​ ​this​ ​process​​ ​in​ ​a​ ​series​ ​of​ ​articles​ ​that​ ​share much​ ​of​ ​their​ ​​thinking,​ ​from​ ​​architectural layouts​​ ​to​ ​​musings​ ​on​ ​culture​.

“We​ ​heard​ ​that​ ​there​ ​were​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​coffee​ ​buffs,​ ​but​ ​that​ ​in​ ​the old​ ​office​ ​coffee​ ​was​ ​terrible,​ ​so​ ​they​ ​broke​ ​away​ ​and​ ​started making​ ​better​ ​coffee​ ​on​ ​their​ ​own,”​ ​Seward​ ​said. The informal coffee club, complete with its own channel on Slack,​ ​​took​ ​to​ ​making​ ​specialty​ ​coffee​ ​in​ ​Chemex​ ​brewers​, sometimes with ​beans​ ​from​ coworkers’ ​travels.

So Desai​ ​Chia​ ​was​ ​careful​ ​to​ incorporate ​​a​ ​coffee-themed​ ​space​ ​in​ ​the new​ ​location.

Quartz’s “Cafe” space celebrates a staff passion for coffee, and the Chemex brewing method in particular. (Photo by Mark Craemer)

​​“We​ ​also​ ​heard​ ​about​ ​a​ ​culture​ ​of​ ​tinkering,”​ ​Seward ​said​. “Some​ ​staff​ ​had​ ​hacked​ ​the​ ​office​ ​in​ the ​previous​ ​space,​ ​added sensors​ ​to​ ​the​ ​dishwasher.”​ ​The​ ​new​ ​location​ has a workshop​ ​for​ ​staff​ ​to​ ​tinker​ ​away.​

Three steps to learn what your staff needs and wants in their workplace

Real estate company JLL describes three issues to address when surveying employees prior to a relocation or remodel. Whether formally or informally, each newsroom in this study conducted some version of these analyses.

Location​ ​survey​​: This is about whether​ ​to​ ​renovate​ ​your current​ ​space​ ​or​ move ​to​ ​a​ ​new​ ​one. The answer​ ​depends​ ​on​ ​multiple issues:​ ​financial,​ ​real​ ​estate​ and behavioral.​ ​Suggested topics to survey:

  • Favorite/least favorite features of the building

  • Nearby​ ​activities​ ​and​ ​amenities

  • Commuting habits

  • Parking​ ​needs​ ​and​ ​issues

  • Use​ ​of amenities near the site​,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​childcare,​ restaurants​ or ​walking​ ​trails​ ​

JLL​ ​recommends​ ​ranking​ ​responses​ ​and sorting​ them​ ​by​ ​age,​ ​length​ ​of​ employment​ ​and​ ​area​ ​of expertise.​ ​For​ ​example,​ ​a​ ​photographer​ ​will​ ​likely​ ​have different​ answers ​than​ ​someone​ ​in​ ​sales;​ ​you’ll​ ​want to​ ​keep​ ​these​ ​differences​ ​in​ ​mind​ ​as​ ​you​ review ​answers.

Workplace​ ​survey​​:​ ​This​ ​in-depth​ ​analysis​ ​​focuses​ ​on how​ ​staff​ ​use​ ​the​ ​existing​ ​space. How​ ​well​ does it ​support — or​ ​inhibit — the work that needs to be done and how employees want to do it? Focusing​ ​on​ ​the nuts​ ​and​ ​bolts​ ​of​ ​day-to-day​ ​work, these surveys help​ ​to​ ​establish which ​spaces​ ​need​ ​​flexibility,​ the ​ratio of open​ ​to​ ​closed​ ​spaces​,​ ​traffic​ ​flow​ problems​ ​and​ ​other​ issues.​

Many firms survey the entire staff and then interview representative members and key stakeholders. These​ ​surveys​ address a variety of factors that influence workspace design:

  • Practical needs: Questions like ​“What’s​ ​your​ ​average​ ​meeting​ ​size?” or ​“How​ ​much​ ​time​ ​do​ ​you​ ​spend​ ​working​ ​virtually​ ​with off-site​ ​team​ ​members?”​

  • Culture and sentiment: “Do​ ​you​ believe ​your​ ​workspace​ ​reflects​ ​your company’s​ ​mission?”​ and “Does​ ​your​ ​workspace​ ​inspire you?” ​

  • Work​ ​habits​ ​and workflows:​ ​“What​ ​do​ ​you​ ​use​ ​Space​ ​A​ ​for?” and​ ​​“How much​ ​time​ ​do​ ​you​ ​spend​ ​in​ ​Space​ ​B?”

“It was the newsroom of Woodward and Bernstein,” Washington​ ​Post​ ​Deputy​ Managing​ Editor​ ​Tracy​ ​Grant​ ​said. But the company hadn’t really done anything to celebrate the legacy of the Post in its old space. This sort of issue can come to light by surveying your employees. The new newsroom, Grant said, “honors the tradition of The Washington Post.” (Photo by Garrett Rowland)

Baseline​ ​survey​​:​ ​This​ ​step​ ​is​ ​the​ ​most​ ​challenging because​ ​it​ ​is​ ​where​ ​you​ ​and​ your​ ​team​ ​do​ ​the​ ​hard​ ​work​ ​of figuring​ ​out​ ​what’s​ ​next​ ​and​ ​how​ ​to​ ​get​ ​there.​ ​This survey​ ​helps​ ​establish​ ​what​ ​you​ ​want​ ​the​ ​new​ ​space​ ​to achieve,​ such as spur more​ ​collaboration,​ ​support​ ​new​ ​workflows or offer more​ ​flexibility​.​​​ ​The results will determine​ ​how​ ​your​ ​objectives​ fit into​ ​the​ ​current workspace, effectively​ ​illuminating​ ​what needs​ ​to​ ​change.

Questions​ ​are designed to highlight existing​ ​gaps​ ​and​ ​uncover​ ​solutions, such as:

  • “What​ ​inhibits collaboration​ ​in​ ​your​ ​current​ ​workspace?”​ ​

  • ​“How​ ​are​ ​you adapting​ ​your​ ​workspace​ ​for​ ​changes​ ​in​ ​workflow?”

  • “List all the potential activities you imagine doing in Space A, B, or C…”

  • “For each activity, indicate the number of people that would typically participate, how often and for what duration.”

  • “Are there any tasks you need to perform that you can’t in the existing space?”

A bright paint scheme helped refresh the newsroom at the Virginian-Pilot and convey a fresh look for the newly digital newsroom. Updated, brightly-colored furniture in new seating areas provided new seating opportunities to meet and work away from desks. (Photo by The’ N. pham)

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