Pitfalls encountered when moving from print to digital publishing

While I’ve had a long and varied work experience, the most formative part of my career was when I worked in professional publishing, where I was part of a team put together to move my company from print delivery to electronic. Back then the Internet was almost unknown; we were transitioning from print to CD-ROM or non-Internet online systems. Our content was millions of pages of editorially enhanced, full-text legal and government documents, along with analysis, books, journals, and newsletters—with a never ending torrent of new material that had to be analyzed and published.

You might think the opportunity to digitally deliver a tremendous amount of ever-changing content would be embraced. Not so much. The company had been in business for decades and was very successful; our core competencies were gathering information, writing analysis, and print production. Our customers (and many of the employees) were accountants and tax attorneys—not people known for leaping at a chance to change. If you work for a technology company, I really can’t explain to you how difficult and painful this was as we moved ourselves and our colleagues—often kicking and screaming (not a metaphor)—into this new world.

“This is like déjà vu all over again"

— Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, noted philosopher (and all-time great American baseball player)

It’s been over 10 years since I worked for that publishing company. You might think my experiences would be irrelevant in today’s world of ubiquitous internet access and seemingly endless streams of online information. But identical experiences are happening all the time, right now, for hundreds of publishers or content providers. At least once a week I read an article, have a conversation, or work with one of our clients whose story makes me feel like I’m reliving the past—either my past or the past of clients we’ve already worked with. I can say, “Here’s what I think is happening in your company, tell me if I’m right”—and I get it right—without them telling me anything more than where they work.

In a few weeks InContext will be sharing a more in-depth look at  key user findings based on the extensive user research we’ve done with our publishing clients. But in the interim, I thought I would offer a few observations.

A caveat: These observations are based on working with publishers that provide content used for professional work or in education, although I suspect they are quite similar for consumer publishing (Condé Nast, Time Inc, etc. give me a call. I’d love to test my hypotheses with your content.)

Think of yourself as a technology company, not a publisher—but don’t become technology centric

It’s a huge challenge for a print publishing company to transform into a technology company. Technology delivery is not a core competency. The people accustomed to driving product development are the editors, content creators, and subject matter experts. Those same people are not necessarily skilled at delivering in a digital medium. The shift needed by the personnel can be profound, and those who can’t make the shift have to be transitioned out. Moreover, new people are often brought in that are techies who think first, second, and third about what technology can do.

This creates a company dominated by people who are in love with technology, or at least have a serious crush on it. When I ask them to describe what their product does, they talk about objects and APIs, not about what work the customer is accomplishing when using the product. It’s time for an intervention—they’ve gone to the dark side. In other words, they’ve gone too far in the other direction and become technology centered.

For example, I recently spoke with someone whose initial forays into moving their printed content to handheld devices were not very successful. They needed to get something into the marketplace, so they found out how to put content on the platform and released the products. They now privately admit that the offerings are not being used by customers, and they are getting ready to redesign and re-launch.

But I’m worried for them (this is not an InContext client). His description of what they plan to do was 100% focused on which new platform features they are going to implement; they are not seriously thinking about the overall context of how their customer uses the content. I’m afraid they will fall short again.

Don’t read this as saying the platform does not matter; of course it does! But its features (and constraints) have to be considered in the context of the customers’ use.

Your product is not the content

The content you publish is not your product. Aggregation, curation, editorial value-add is not your product. Of course there is value to what the publisher provides, but it is becoming less valuable when the source materials are readily available, for free, on the web.

So what is the product? Supporting the full context of use of that content in your customers’ work practice is your product. And that means you need a deep understanding what happens before, during, and after the content is read. So you need to talk to your customers.

That brings me to my last point.

The old ways of talking to your customers don’t work for product design

(This means you too, technology companies!)

If you listen to what’s coming out of the publishing industry lately, you’ll hear increasing talk about needing to be “customer-focused” and listening to the “voice of the customer” in order to create the “user experience” or “support the user workflow.”

You’d think this would be music to my ears. But then the conversation quickly turns to focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one interviews. Sigh. Steve Jobs is right; if this is how you “ask” your customers none of these techniques are going to tell you a darn thing that will be helpful in designing your product.

The really successful companies making the transition from print to digital—companies like Wolters Kluwer and McGraw-Hill Higher Education—are using Contextual Inquiry interviewing to observe end users in the field. They’ve made Contextual Design the cornerstone of their customer intimacy programs and product development processes. Moreover, because they understand the context of use, they are developing solutions that deliver what customers really need.

Isn’t that every company’s goal, regardless of industry?

Watch for an announcement in a few weeks when InContext publishes our research insights from working in the publishing industry. In the meantime, leave me a comment. I’d love to get your perspective!