Dallas Morning News keeps product initiatives simple for success
Product and Tech Blog | 03 October 2021
It’s time to kiss complexity goodbye. And we’re doing that at The Dallas Morning News (DMN).
The Empire State Building was built at a record pace — 14 months — because it followed the simple “wedding cake” tiered model.
Pablo Picasso planned his paintings with simplicity in mind — repeatedly drawing simpler and simpler versions of a bull, which eventually was just nine lines.
When I first started at The Dallas Morning News in late 2018, we had more than 40 paywalls because we were trying to appeal to various users and their pattern of behaviours. Today, we have fewer than 10. And our number of subscription starts has doubled since we simplified (August 2019 to August 2021 comparison).
When my product team launched the new Arc content management system in record time — six months from the first line of code being written — the key to the success was a simplified process and architecture.
We didn’t need to worry about the hosting of servers and we could put our resources into the real innovative front-end work. Plus, we came up with the top three levels of requirements for launch so we would clearly know what was required (our MVP) versus what was nice to have.
The road to simplicity is not a simple one. And, we fail to follow it sometimes because of competing business needs or legacy systems; however, we still continue to strive.
At The Dallas Morning News, the product team moves at lightning speed to roll out updates every two weeks. The reason behind that is keeping the process for our planned work as simple as possible. In the background the process takes many steps to make sure it meets easily understood goals and objectives, similar to the process Picasso followed with his drawings.
Our company goals are tied to four objectives; the top ones include growing our subscription base and increasing our ad revenue. Requests come in every day for new features, new projects, bug solutions, technology upgrades, etc. And then we have virtual, in-person, and e-mail discussions to get more information around each of these.
Then, there are the specific technical, newsroom, marketing, and vendor check-ins. Plus, there are side discussions on Slack, documentation in Google Docs and Confluence, and updates tracked in Jira.
Many conversations take place so we can get to the core of what the product team can accomplish in the next sprint. We simplify in a way so that each team member can start executing the work but can also add their own ideas and creativity to the final solution. The simpler we keep the tickets, the more room there is for the development team to innovate.
When we first started working on revamping the header of our site, we had a general idea of how we wanted the header to behave as a user scrolled down the page. The ticket included the following simple description: “As a site reader, I want to be able to see the DMN navigation as I scroll down all of the pages, so that I can easily move from one area of the site to another.”
The developer who was responsible for the animation on the project added his flavour and attention to detail that purposely wasn’t described in the ticket. Simplicity allowed him the room to think through the best solution.
This new design has more than doubled and sometimes quadrupled the number of clicks to the different areas of the site. Plus, the new implementation continues to prove that obituaries and the e-paper are reliably popular destinations.
When aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson came up with the KISS (“keep it simple stupid”) principle in the 1960s, he couldn’t have imagined the simplicity of this phrase would shape the future of the product team at The Dallas Morning News.
As my team continues to grow, mature, and take on new projects, our processes will keep changing and maturing; however, the KISS principle will continue to be the foundation of our work. We may not always be able to follow it, but we will continue to strive for it.