People look for information by asking questions and The New York Times is uniquely positioned to give them answers. Ask NYT reaches its users with conversational experiences that transform the Times’s wealth of knowledge into actionable information; adding value to their experience and helping them in their daily lives to better understand the world.

Role: Product Design Lead
Objective: How might we make our evergreen journalism more actionable?
Platform: Web

Design Objective

Our team was tasked to design an experience where readers can connect with journalists to find satisfying advice about real life problems. The product makes our newsroom more impactful and efficient by tapping directly into our readers needs. It also provides an opportunity to leverage and resurface the vast repository of journalism in the Times’s archive.


To determine the right experience to connect readers with our journalism, we tested a series of provocations that would help us understand our readers’ expectations, behaviors and motivations. With this exercise, we asked questions like: how much do readers expect us to anticipate the questions they might have? Do readers expect a personalized answer and what does this mean for recycled answers? Is there a timeframe to deliver a satisfactory answer? What if the answer is always “it depends”?

A few of the provocations we tested. Left: A reader gets a notification at the gym in which we suggest the best way to replenish after your workout. Center: A search portal that suggests the question you may have before you type it out. Right: A dynamic collection of questions based on your online activity and interests.  

We learned, among other insights, that readers don’t expect instant gratification: they are willing to wait to get a well-researched answer; that answers with tangible takeaways are valued over simplified information; that personalization is valued in non-news contexts but should be additive — not subtractive; and that anticipating questions requires the right kinds of inputs. These learnings led us to our pilot experiment: Live Q&As.

Left: synthesizing our learnings from user interviews. Right: mapping out our pilot experiment.

Pilot Test

Over the fall of 2017, we tested three Q&As around disparate topics: Makeup, Relationships and Career. With these tests, we wanted to gauge reader interest, satisfaction and newsroom feasibility. We tracked user behavior, followed up with participants via survey, conducted several one-on-one interviews and checked in on how the process worked (and how it didn’t) for the writers.

Designs for the Q&A tests that ran in the fall of 2017.

We learned that nearly ¾ of the audience were subscribers, suggesting an opportunity to frame the experience as a subscriber benefit and to test its impact on retention. 75% of the audience reported being “highly satisfied” with the experience for its clear and informative writing, actionable advice, topic choices and inclusivity.

Exploring an MVP

Our first task in this next phase of work was to define a satisfying answer. We looked inwards to the array of question-and-answer journalism that already exists within the Times and came up with an answer blueprint.

Top row: an audit of question-and-answer journalism in The Times to help uncover patterns and establish an “answer blueprint.” Bottom row: brainstorm to explore potential Q&A interfaces based on specific personas.

Knowing what kind of structure would be satisfying for our readers, we are working towards an MVP to fill a repository of questions and answers that we can be surfaced in the right moment, to meet our users where they are.

© Alessandra Villaamil 2018