TechCrunch just launched their redesigned site. I like it, even the logo (though some of the guys here don’t agree with me, but you know designers, bunch of bitchy little girls), and I got a chance to talk with Dave Feldman he is Director, Consumer Experience at Aol and was the project lead on the new redesign.
FleshEatingZipper: What was the original vision, how did you come up with what it is now?
Dave Feldman: I think that there were a couple of things in mind, obviously we had some goals in terms of metrics, number of people visiting the site. Even more so than that, we were interested in getting people to more content. If you read an article and there’s another article that might be of interest to you, we would like to make sure you see that and take an interest in that. Another goal was the design of the site was starting to look a little dated, if felt like it was ready for a redesign. We could create a better package for the content. TechCrunch is known for having this wonderful cutting edge content with a good attitude – a really strong attitude – and we wanted to make sure the site reflected that and did it justice.
FEZ: Were there any sites that were an inspiration to the design?
DF: I mentioned this in the launch article and it bears repeating, we were watching Gawker pretty closely and we knew from day one that we didn’t want to take the direction they were taking. They were tackling some of the same problems we were tackling, there are some things that are very good and very strong about the blog format but then there are also some things that it doesn’t do all that well. A simple reverse chronological list of posts doesn’t feature things and that becomes especially important on a very high traffic site. You also have the bulk of your traffic coming in via search results and so many people aren’t landing on the homepage so what do you do about that? Well Gawker’s answer was you basically make every page a homepage. Our answer is a little different and a little more nuanced and it has to do with making sure when you land on an article page you have some cross site navigational access beyond just the navigational bar at the top.
Beyond that, we took our inspiration from a lot of different places. I’m sure the design agency we worked with did a lot of competitive analysis that I didn’t even see coming into the project a couple months in as I did. We were very aware of some of the do’s and don’ts from a visual standpoint. TechCrunch got acquired by Aol a little while after we started this process and we wanted to make sure we didn’t inadvertently create something that looked like we just Aol-ized the site because the user base would’ve revolted and it wouldn’t have sent the right message because TechCrunch is remaining TechCrunch and doing what they do best. We also wanted to make it so it didn’t look too much like Wired or that we ripped off Gawker or Engadget for that matter. We wanted to make sure we retained the personality of the site.
We looked a lot at little features of different sites, things from, I think its MSNBC that has a really interesting thing when you scroll up it has additional information and there’s the little pop-up with related articles on the New York Times. So just picking and choosing across the internet for things that we might want to use or that we might want to take as a cautionary tale or that we might just want to use as a jumping off point for something cool and new that we wanted to do.
FEZ: How much of the design/art was TechCrunch/Aol vs. Code and Theory?
DF: It was certainly a collaboration. The easiest thing for me to talk about there in terms of something to give you concrete was the look and feel. What that header bar looks like up at the top, the greenness of it and the blockiness of it. We had gone through a number of iterations and we didn’t feel like we were quite there yet, this is something I mentioned in the article, what I ended up doing was sitting down with their creative director and we just kind of locked ourselves in a room for three days and just started messing around. He would get ten percent of the way into a Photoshop thing and say hey what do you think about this? and I would say oh that actually kind of works, but what if we tried this and what if we tried this? It was very much a collaboration.
DF: A lot of our sites are not WordPress, the internal folks we had working on it, who are awesome, did have some WordPress experience. There are some peculiarities and specific things to the high-performance WordPress VIP hosting environment that requires somebody that’s really been in that environment before so we brought in those contractors to 1) just to get more bodies on the project to get it out the door faster, but also 2) just to serve as experts in that environment that we’re going to be launching in.
FEZ: How involved was the staff at TechCrunch?
DF: They were very involved, depending on the person more or less, Heather Harde who is TechCrunch’s CEO was involved. She and I had twice weekly calls and we were showing her mock-ups and wire frames. Mike and Eric were also involved pretty regularly; sometimes that meant asking them a question about how the editors worked, sometimes that meant showing them what our latest was and getting some feedback. Then we would also have periodic conversations with the other writers and editors as well.
FEZ: Was there a culture clash, like being on WordPress vs. Blogsmith?
DF: (laughing) I don’t think there was a ton of culture clash, we certainly took a hard look at what our platform choices were. We went with WordPress because it was the easiest and fastest way for us to launch a product that was already on WordPress with a set of features that we had chosen and the design we had chosen in a reasonable amount of time. I know Blogsmith guys and have had dealings with them in the past and don’t think that there are hard feelings.
FEZ: What was the hardest part jumping into the middle after Aol bought TechCrunch and you were put in charge?
DF: You could write the answer to that yourself, you drop into a project like this right after an acquisition and there is a design agency already involved and you’ve got internal developers and platform people and this company that is still figuring out what it means to be a part of Aol. It’s a lot of moving parts and you have to figure out who all these people are, many that you are just meeting, and get them to understand what you’re there for and start to build up the trust and rapport that’s necessary to move forward. That’s arguably the hardest part, but it’s also fun.
FEZ: You mentioned this and we all know that people hate redesign of big sites and that you’ve seen comparisons to the Gawker redesign. I’m sure TechCrunch saw this coming, was the hate mail template stuff prepared in advance? Were the plans to have TechCrunch make fun of themselves?
DF: We were prepared. The specific hate mail template post, I didn’t know he was going to do that, he just came up with that and it was awesome and I loved it. With that said, to be frank we were expecting a much stronger backlash. TechCrunch has such a passionate and opinionated user community, inevitably that’s a double-edged sword. We love that about them because they care of course, but we also get frustrated when they just randomly hate on us. We posted a few days before to start get people into the idea that this was coming and you kind of weather the storm and you take it with a sense of humor and understand that it’s going to happen. People are going to have their opinions and they’re not shy about expressing them. The only other thing I would add to that is I am thrilled to be part of something that people have that strong of an opinion about, even when it is negative, because it means we did something that is not just bland.
FEZ: Were you hoping that everyone would just love everything about it?
DF: I don’t even think we hoped that because it was just such an unrealistic expectation (laughing). The truth is there’s no way we got this 100% right and the other piece of that is you tune out the anger and listen to the feedback.
FEZ: TechCrunch writes about a lot of startups (FYI we’re a startup, just saying if you want to write about us, you know. -Ed) how does this new site help them? Was this more for the readers? The writers?
DF: All of those goals are overlapping because it’s all one mission. The more we help the TechCrunch writers get their content out in a way that reflects it well and does it justice the more that content gets seen by people that need to see it. The more we provide a good reading experience and a flexible reading experience for readers, the more that content gets consumed. We have a more prominent navigation bar at the top that’s persistent when you scroll and one of the items in there is startups. We have these different types of posts so posts can be represented with a bunch of different layouts on the homepage and that allows the editors to choose which posts get what level of importance and which are more noticeable. TechCrunch is great at featuring startups because they are great at featuring startups and what we need to do with a design like this is make sure the content looks great, it’s easier to read and the people who are looking for specific content like startups are able to find that without having to just scroll down the page.
FEZ: Can you explain how you customized the backend for authors? Does it look like WordPress or is it custom?
DF: If you were to drop in to the CMS for the new site, your first response would be oh yeah, it’s WordPress, then you start hunting around a little bit you’ll see there is some new modules for things. Again, we have these multiple post types and it looks like WordPress and it asks what post type you want and when you click a radio button, there are some additional controls. (Check it out to the right.)
FEZ: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
DF: Thank you!