At the Hub, we’ve been thinking about Content Management Systems for a long time.
We’ve been using WordPress in particular for more than 15 years; we’ve seen how this open source publishing platform has evolved — and changed lives.
WordPress’ power is in its flexibility, but this flexibility can also lead to complexity for publishers. Our involvement in the Newspack project is largely driven by a desire to resolve these problems for our customers and the industry at large.
Based on our experience working with newsrooms, we had an idea of some of the features Newspack could include; however, we didn’t feel we had the full picture. We needed input from a broader cohort of people — people working at news organizations and using WordPress right now.
With the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation we embarked on a research project to inform this initiative — we sought to understand workflows, pain points, successes and failures experienced by WordPress-based newsrooms.
Commissioning a Research Project
We wanted to understand the typical newsroom workflow; the tools with which WordPress interacts; the user journey of both editorial and business in newsrooms; the roles who use WordPress; and pain points specific to newsroom usage.
In order to do this, we’d need to get hands-on with a diverse set of news organizations. So we commissioned Amanda Krauss, PhD, a user experience researcher and technologist, to lead the project, and settled on a two-step method.
In the initial discovery phase, one-on-one interviews allowed us to sketch out initial workflows and find indications of potential pain points, as well as to gather in-depth information about the motivations, goals, and emotions of users. We then followed up with a larger-scale survey to determine how prevalent these pain points were, and to gather further data about newsrooms using WordPress.
Interviews and Contextual Inquiry
The initial interviews focused on 8 newsrooms with staff sizes ranging from 3-23 full-time employees. To ensure that both editorial and business-side users were represented, we selected two participants from each newsroom, one in an editorial role and one in a business role. 7 of the 8 participating outlets were nonprofits.
During the interviews, we asked participants to describe their roles and daily activities, then conducted a contextual inquiry allowing participants to demonstrate the tasks they had described. All interviews were remote, and all participants were guaranteed anonymity to ensure they felt comfortable giving honest feedback.
By having users demonstrate their day-to-day activities in WordPress, we gained an initial sense of what was working well, what could be improved, and how WordPress fits into the ecosystem of newsroom tools. The next step was to expand our area of inquiry. We designed the survey to find out how prevalent the pain points reported in the interviews were, as well as to gain a better understanding of what types of newsrooms were (or were not) using WordPress.
We distributed the survey link to approximately 1,000 people including INN, LION, and Hub member organizations, as well as Slack groups and social media, and received 279 responses. Respondents were invited to share identifying information if they wished, but could also take the survey anonymously if they preferred.
WordPress functions within a complex ecosystem of newsroom tools, and those using it must frequently context-switch between WordPress and other systems. Not every change in context is a pain point, but there are areas where better tool integrations could reduce friction for users.
Through our research, we found several areas of opportunity:
- Newsroom users generally find WordPress easy to use, especially for its core intended function of putting content online. Its ability to address other facets of publication, such as visual appearance, content distribution, and metrics evaluation are less reliably serving user needs.
- Visually arranging content on the site was a commonly felt pain point, as was not having adequate control over promotional content (such as pop-ups and other CTAs) that appears on the site.
- Business-side users do not necessarily see the WordPress system itself as a means to generate revenue. Because managing the revenue funnel requires many third-party tools (email software, CRM, donation management software, and payment systems), the site itself can often seem like a mere container for these tools, rather than a system that addresses business needs from within the platform.
- Technical confidence (that is, the ability to confidently use WordPress for a variety of functions) can be a very large pain point. Even if there is a contract developer available for assistance—which is not a given—users may fear making “technical” decisions or changes that might affect the functionality of the live site. Furthermore, even those who feel confident in their ability to solve technical problems may not want to spend their limited time doing so. This is especially true for users who have many roles, and must work with multiple areas of the system.
- Because this is a general study, and an initial foray into a large user base, we encourage those developing WordPress news tools to dig more deeply into the needs of their intended customers. Factors like newsroom size, technical confidence, and target user role(s) will all affect the types of features most likely to be useful.
In late May, Amanda Krauss and the Hub team gave a full readout to the Newspack developers. Shortly thereafter, we described this research and took questions from Newspack Charter organizations — organizations that will be using Newspack on day one.
Of the report, Newspack Team Lead Jefferson Raab said, “It has given the Newspack team valuable insight into the workflows and pain points of our target customer, and has helped calibrate our efforts to ensure we are focused on the right challenges.”
Now, we’re proud to release it publicly so it can be used by anyone who’s interested in understanding the CMS needs of small-to-medium sized newsrooms. We have high hopes for the Newspack project, and we hope this research can help improve things for the sector as a whole.