PSFK founder Piers Fawkes explains how the company approached redeveloping its digital experience to align with its subscribers' and members' evolving needs and behaviors

We recently went through a rethink of the look and feel as well as the functionality of PSFK digital experience, and I wanted to share some of the ideas we pursued in case they might spur new thinking among our peers. The main driver was a need to shift away from the mindset informed by 15 years of (profitable) b2b publishing.

We had transformed from a personal blog into an advertiser-driven publication, and from there into a paid business intelligence service over the last 3 years. While we remain relatively nimble, muscle memory kept coming into play, making it easy to do ‘what we always did.’ (Some history of PSFK can be found in this recent interview here).

PSFK needed a new approach and a shift of mindset to reflect changing reader behaviors. Working with our internal design team plusAnthony Smyrski and Nini Lin, our developers at Grandiz, and the Wallkit paywall & subscription system, we focused on a number of key elements for our redesign, including the following:

  1. Media As A Service
  2. Aligning search as hero
  3. Dynamic content based on reader type
  4. Responding to the angle of the lean
  5. Step-by-step intercepts
  6. Applying multiple funnels
  7. Living media
  8. Constant iteration
  9. What would Airbnb do?

Media As A Service
We needed to step away from the tiles and the endless scroll that is so common with media publications. One of the core asks in our brief to the designers was to reconsider PSFK as if it was software. We wanted to avoid the assumptions forced by our publishing legacy. We wanted our designers to ignore the assumed functionality of our tech-stack and approach the experience and flow of PSFK in the same way they'd develop the UX for a computer program, a mobile application or a search-driven web service.

While there still are elements of ‘media format' on PSFK, there are now moments in our experience where we have shifted to a software UI/UX approach, particularly in search and welcome messaging. Overall we looked to develop a Media As A Service Site Design.

Aligning search as hero
We chose the most important page on our site to be the search results page. For a long time, we had assumed that our home page was the most important one. From there, we moved to considering the single article page as number one, due to traffic arriving directly into this content. For the latest iteration of PSFK, we decided that visitors to the site (who paid us/used us) were more likely looking for very specific content as opposed to browsing, so we accordingly concluded that designing an intuitive approach to search was critical to delivering an exceptional user experience.

Dynamic content based on reader type
Like any other publisher operating a paywall or membership system, we alter reader access to content (written, photographic, pdf, video and so on) depending on the individual’s subscription level, but we have started to apply the Wallkit functionality further: The Wallkit system now alters the information that WordPress publishes on the home page and other ‘about' pages, so strangers see different content on these pages from what ‘casual’ users see, which is different again from what ‘paid' users can view. If a viewer is new to the site, they will see sales messages to push them along the path to purchase.

We also reconsidered what the content recommendations at the end of the article that were trying to achieve—are the ‘also reads’ trying to fuel discovery or force the reader into a funnel? For strangers, we decided we needed to encourage them to experience as much PSFK content as they can by taking them down a path of free content, with the ultimate hope that they’d like what they see and be motivated to increase their readership level.

Beyond templates like the home page and the single page, our dynamic content will now reflect the type of reader a viewer is. Different areas of the real estate in our WordPress templates alter in accordance with what the Wallkit membership system advises. While we might recommend a paid reader to view a research report, we might recommend a stranger an interview.

Responding to the angle of the lean
This sounds like a no-brainer, but mobile readers aren’t the same as desktop readers. However, sometimes we assume that they are the same, or that their intent is.

In simplistic terms, we adjusted our expectation to see our mobile readers as newsletter consumers with a lean-back experience. They are often on the way to work, when there's less impetus to click through in an email they receiver from us to visit the site. Desktop readers, on the other hand, are often engaged in a ‘lean-forward' manner: They want to find out more about a topic they are researching. They are using PSFK as a tool for their work and we needed to respond to this need in our design. While this may appear a simplistic way to view the reader, such ideas about user behavior help our team understand user needs and take action to address them.

Step-by-step (paywall) intercepts
Strangers never turn up to a new site with credit card in hand, but so many paywalls function as if this is the intuitive next step. That’s like trying to charge people who are looking at the menu in the window of your restaurant. It sounds obvious but I think most publishers fall into this trap. At PSFK, we are trying to think through the user flow to push each reader through a specific funnel that reflects their segment’s needs. So I guess we're trying to take that credit card after the first drink is ordered.

Applying multiple funnels
For three years, we tried to force our readers along a single funnel, but eventually we realized that we had different groups of users who were only going to pay us for certain types of content. In simple terms (because the reality gets messy), there are now two user funnels: One that provides a regular lean-back, newsletter-driven experience that will convert some casual readers to become paid subscribers and event ticket buyers; and one that converts to a lean-forward, on-demand, service-driven experience for executives who need research reports and on-demand services with human researchers.

This differentiation informs how the content, messaging and UI approach change.

Living media
There's a chat box on every page of the site that connects to a human being. The Wallkit system chooses different chat functionality options dependent on the type of user (stranger, casual, paid, VIP) and that chat connects with our internal Slack communication channels. This is an example of how publishers can think of their experience as living media.

Constant iteration
By the time you have read this article, we would have updated the site again. We must be updating the functionality as well as look & feel of the site every one or two weeks. As we adjust our mindset to Media As A Service site and digital experience design, we become aware of new possibilities on how to engage our audiences.

Finally, what would Airbnb do?
At PSFK, we strive to go beyond the traditional publisher mindset. Even though our roots are based in one-way content, that doesn't mean the experience today should be. We want to be a service company, so we look at some of the most inspirational service companies out there, asking ourselves when confronted with a challenge, ‘What would someone like Airbnb do?'

Final takeaways checklist—rules we try to abide by:

  • Deliver content that people are paying for before delivering content that might drive traffic.
  • Ignore the urge to create content that clickbaits or provides the type of content advertisers or sponsors used to want.
  • Personalize the content to the user’s funnel stage.
  • Remember that there are multiple user types and therefore multiple funnels trying to monetize different content.
  • Gently coax the user along the funnel. Do not rush to credit-card transaction (but always make that an option! :)
  • Understand that the mobile experience (and related KPIs) are different than for desktop. That applies to audio content and events.
  • Make real-time help available for reader’s questions. As, ultimately, it’s about creating a living experience, staff up to communicate with readers and subscribers on demand.

As some of you know, I started PSFK in New York with few resources and a lot of uncertainty. It was a passion project that managed to turn into a business. By realigning our approach every few years, PSFK has remained profitable and grown—and it still remains a passion project! With that passion, we try to achieve the best we can for the reader, the team and the business.

My hope is that this outline of our shift to Media As A Service will provide inspiration for your own design considerations.