The Role of Research in the NPR.org Redesign

As senior research analyst in NPR's Audience Insight & Research (AIR) department, I wanted to share a bit about the role that research played in the recent redesign of NPR.org. I want to do this because we feel it's important to share exactly how the perspectives and needs of our radio listeners and web visitors were incorporated into the new site design.

The process began over a year ago when the AIR team conducted an audit of all pre-existing research on NPR.org and its users. Web metrics, competitive site data from third party research vendors, survey responses, focus group and ethnographic research findings were all incorporated into an overview of who NPR.org users are, what they liked and disliked about the previous NPR.org and what, in light of all this, our goals should be for the redesign.

It was in all of that pre-existing data that we observed NPR.org acting mostly as a complement to the NPR listening experience on the radio. Users told us that, generally speaking, they came to the site to follow up on a piece they heard on their way to work, to hear more or to share something with a friend. NPR.org was not frequently top-of-mind when it came time to check the latest news or explore a new topic online. While finding something you heard on the radio is a critical function of NPR.org that we knew we had to maintain if not improve, the general perception of the site as simply a companion to the radio was something we wanted to change.

After that initial research audit, AIR and the NPR User Experience Delivery team conducted various research projects to get the redesign started from a user-centric perspective. The first of these was a series of in-person interviews with NPR.org users recruited from our listener advisory panel, NPR Listens. Over the course of hour-long, face-to-face interviews (10 in DC and five in Austin, TX with staff from member station KUT), we explored peoples' use of news and audio online and how their radio listening and general Web browsing led them to NPR.org and what they expected from us when they got there. We also explored what led our listeners to other news sites that they frequently use, and what it was about those sites that acted as a compelling draw to them.

Many of the findings from these projects manifest themselves in small but important ways on the new site. Surfacing "Add to playlist" buttons and audio links to places like the homepage make it easier for people to initiate a listening experience, for example. Another example: listing popular public radio programs not produced by NPR in the "Programs" menu was something that users told us they expected - something that seemed unnatural to us, but perfectly intuitive to them. As a result, you will now find links to Marketplace, This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion under "Programs" at the top of every page.

Other findings had more visible impact on the form of the new site. At one point, we conducted an exercise where users were asked to sort various content elements into groupings that they consider intuitive. This was designed to guide thinking around the topical navigation structure and helped inform the redesign team's decision to take a simplified approach on the new site, breaking content up into the broad headings of News, Arts & Life and Music. Doing so not only keeps content in an intuitive structure for users, but also makes a strong statement about NPR.org's unique value relative to other news sites.

Beyond this, we conducted additional surveys, interviews and usability tests at all phases of the project. Early on, some users were shown only paper prototypes and clickable lists of topics to test navigation. In later tests partially-functioning prototypes were used.

Regardless of the research methodology being used at any time, we were getting feedback from listeners and users throughout all phases of the project. They all served to inject the voice of our listeners and users into what has been a very important process.

The audience research aspect of the project isn't over now that the site is live. You may occasionally be invited to participate in a survey that we run continuously on the site in partnership with a company named ForeSee Results. If you are invited, please do take the time to fill it out, as we are using results of that survey from before and after the launch to measure how successful we have been in achieving our goals. We also welcome, of course, any feedback that you would like to offer in the comments here.

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