Four Steps to Designing Digital Products with Readers in Mind

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By Hannah Nelson


Digital: an adjective become a noun in the lexicon of creatives. It’s no longer just a supplement to print. It’s many readers’ go-to medium for consuming information. This offers virtually endless opportunities for building relationships with readers.


Merideth Menken, a business technology consultant for Information Technology Advisory Company, and Jessica Morrison, product manager at Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), provided strategies for remaining relevant in today’s digital world during their breakout session at AM&P 360 2019 in June in Washington, DC.


Their suggestions included:


Bringing Readers into Your Broader Community

First, find out who your people are and if you’re reaching them as they want to be reached. Once your publication has this information, you’ll be able to identify ways to produce content your readers need.


With approximately 100,000 print and digital subscribers, C&EN — a weekly magazine and online news platform of the American Chemical Society — has experimented significantly in the past two years. It started by creating an affinity map.


C&EN staff connected its team’s culture and skills, audience development, product updates and launches, operations and process, and revenue back to mission-related goals — for the association and the publication — for the coming years.


To make your own affinity map:

  • Make your objectives small and actionable. Space them out.

  • Assign start dates in addition to deadlines to give people a sense of how long the work will take.

  • Leave time to get people without responsibilities onboard.


Improving Your Process with Product Thinking

If silos are harming your organization’s process, you’re not alone. While silos are endemic in associations, they can be broken down through product thinking.


C&EN brings product thinking to its process by emphasizing the continued development of its products throughout their lifecycles. For each product, it asks, “How can we maintain it? Who owns it? When is it time to say goodbye?”


Approaching products in this way allows C&EN to have continuous awareness of where people are in their work, so work can’t happen in isolation.


To apply product thinking on your team:

  • Hold regular, consistent meetings.

  • Have a system for prioritizing work.

  • Ask your team to retrospectively assess what’s working so you continuously evolve.



Managing Projects Wisely

Project management takes both strategic and communication skills. It’s important to agree as a team on a language for managing change, documenting decision-making, and deciding who weighs in and when.


C&EN piloted its project management platform to help with editorial projects like its Talented 12 and 10 Startups to Watch — products that could be repeated, packaged, and managed to be sustainable, even as they grew.


To track projects, it used Asana and created a timeline for every step of a project — more than in a traditional workflow — starting with time for review and working backward. If your team finds itself with a lot of ideas and no time to build them, try this approach.


To set up your project management platform:

  • Adopt software as a team. It’s also good to build habits (e.g., by setting up notifications).

  • Identify a skilled project manager who will own the project, and establish how this person will communicate with the team.

  • Document project timelines for a visual of how your work affects others, creating transparency and accountability and helping you to see deadlines accumulating downstream.


Doing Your Research

Involve your members! A part of product thinking is being agile, which includes bringing in readers closer and earlier. Do research and testing among readers with different characteristics to learn what will make them happy and whom you’ll attract depending on how you promote your content.


C&EN created a product research group of 400 “super-readers” specifically for this purpose. Called the C&EN Reader Lab, it’s saved time that otherwise may have been spent arguing about what readers want and helped them to identify what readers need.


To test product ideas:

  • Brainstorm specific needs and wants your readers may call out.

  • Test in groups of five or more (just five people can help identify usability problems).

  • Consider offering compensation but know that many readers like participating in research — just knowing they’re making your product better can be enough.


You can also do research through discovery interviews — on-site interviews at your association’s annual meeting, for example. Go in with a clear idea of what you want to know and, if you can, select interviewees based on those criteria. You can tap members to help you with affinity mapping or designing as well.


Hannah Nelson is a digital content strategist for Neuronline, a training and professional development website of the Society for Neuroscience. Association Media & Publishing thanks Hannah for covering this AM&P Annual Meeting session for our members who were unable to attend.