The Web that Wasn’t and the New York Times: An Interview with Alex Wright

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I recently talked to Alex Wright, Director of User Experience at The New York Times, and author of Glut, a book on the history of information architecture from human evolution to the internet.  At the end of August he will be the keynote speaker for UX Australia. I talked to him about how a librarian gets into user experience, why the NY Times doesn’t talk about readers anymore, and how the web might have been better had history been different.

Alex Wright

Alex Wright

Vicky Teinaki: Like many people in UX, you’ve had an interesting journey to where you are today. Can you tell us about your background?

Alex Wright: In my pre-Web life, I worked at various times as journalist, librarian, and for a very brief stint as a press rep for a government agency (where my claim to fame was writing the authoritative history of Massachusetts milk pricing policy). I stumbled into my first Web job in 1995, when I joined IBM as the managing editor of the site.  Over the years that role morphed into more of a design management/information architecture job, and eventually I started calling myself a user experience manager (although no one really knew what that meant in 1998).  When I left IBM in 1999, I got swept up in the whole dotcom gold rush and moved out to San Francisco, where I worked with a little Web consulting firm called Phoenix Pop. After that, I spent about 7 years working for myself as a consultant. Along the way, I started to develop a deepening interest in the question of how people have organized information over the years, leading me down a research path that eventually led me to write my book, Glut, about the history of information systems. After my book came out, I got wind of a job at The New York Times, which has given me an opportunity to pull together some of these disparate career threads as a researcher, writer and designer.

You’re currently the Director of User Experience and Product Research at the New York Times. Can you talk about the work you do?

The New York Times iPhone App (source: NYTimes)

The New York Times iPhone App (source: NYTimes)

I manage a small team responsible for conducting research into how our users (formerly “readers”) interact with the Times, both online and in print.  We work closely with our design and product team to evaluate new product ideas, and to identify opportunities for improving the user experience.

In addition to traditional user testing, we also use a range of other research methods like ethnography, surveys, community panels and A/B testing, among others.  I have also had the chance to do some design work (e.g., on the NYTimes iPhone app), and to write an occasional piece for the paper.

The New York Times has made a name for itself as a leader in new forms of digital user experience. What recent and upcoming developments are there?

From a user research perspective, one of the most interesting areas involves e-reader devices like the Kindle. The market for these devices is still tiny compared to the market for print or Web media, but it’s growing fast, and the technology is still in its infancy. Soon we’re going to start new technologies like flexible color displays that could really transform the way people consume digital media.  One interesting research question involves looking into whether people will expect these devices to function like portable Web browsers, or whether they want an experience that approximates a more stable, print-like experience.  We’re currently in the process of trying to explore what an ideal e-reader user experience might look like.

You say that NY Times ‘readers’ are now ‘users’….

Traditionally, newspaper publishing was a one-way street: Reporters reported, editors edited, and readers read.  Now the Web is changing that equation: the lines between writing, reading and editing are all starting to blur.  “Readers” now edit the news for themselves using RSS readers and collaborative filtering tools; while many reporters now engage in direct, unflitered discussions with all kinds of people via Twitter, Facebook et al.  These days it seems like most everyone is part writer, part reader, part editor.  We’re constantly looking for ways to broaden and deepen those relationships.  So while reading articles is still a big part of what most people do with the Times, “user” seems like a more inclusive term for the range of ways people engage with us online.

I understand that you were once involved with a project like the Rosetta Stone…

Several years ago I helped The Long Now Foundation redesign the Rosetta Project, an effort to create an authoritative Web-based archive of all the world’s languages. More recently, I had the opportunity to give a talk at one of their Long Now Seminars, where I had the good fortune to spend time with two people I admire enormously: Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly.

Mastering Information Throughout the Ages

Glut: Mastering Information Throughout the Ages

In your book Glut, you point out that we have had a number of information revolutions throughout history (written language, the codex, printed press, the internet) that enabled some valuable form of communication. Do you think that anything happening right now will be looked on in the future as the ‘next information revolution’?

The Internet will almost certainly go down in history as one of humanity’s great technological transformations, along with the printing press and the invention of writing.  It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that major technological shifts rarely go smoothly.  In the years after Gutenberg, Western Europe went through a period of violent upheaval that can be traced at least in part to the social and institutional disruptions wrought by the printing press. With the Internet, we are just starting to understand the potentially wrenching economic, political and social impact that this technology may trigger. It’s too early to predict what the long-term outcomes will be, but it seems like we may well be witnessing a literally epochal shift in the patterns of human interaction.

You’re giving a keynote at UX Australia. Can you give us a bit more information about what you’ll be talking about?

I’m going to talk about the history of early hypertext systems that predated the Web. For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever known – it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP.  But in the years leading up to the Web, visionary information scientists like Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson and others were exploring provocative alternative visions of how networked information technologies might work. I’m going to take a look at the heritage of these systems and explore what they might be able to teach us about today’s Web, in search of practical lessons for user experience designers.

Any particular one of those visions you wish had actually happened (or just really like)?

Each one of them had particular strengths that are lacking in today’s Web.  For example, Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson both believed strongly in the importance of two-way links. Doug Engelbart wanted to see better tools for group collaboration. Paul Otlet imagined the possibility of a top-down, hierachical classification system working in concert with a bottom-up, networked scheme. Of course, each of these systems had shortcomings as well. And part of the secret to the Web’s success has been its relative simplicity. So while I’d be reluctant to say that one of these systems would have necessarily been “better” than what we have today, it’s still instructive to look back at some of these alternative visions, because they still hold out a lot of promise for thinking about ways to improve the user experience of today’s Web.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

This will be my first trip to Australia, so I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the country while I’m there, and perhaps enjoying a meat pie.

Alex Wright will be keynoting at the UX Australia conference, in Canberra, Australia on 27-28 August 2009.

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

5 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Putting people first » Interview with the director of UX of the New York Times

  2. Good interview. Wright’s book sounds very interesting. I’ll look in to getting a copy. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Pingback: Interview with the director of UX of the New York Times | UX Booth

  4. Pingback: Putting People First in italiano » Intervista col direttore di UX del New York Times

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