ESPN’s redesign targets 5 important keys for a successful digital news enterprise

I have always been enamored with website redesigns. I’ve gone through a few myself and I’ve never walked away without feeling a little sore about something.

The issues tend to come at you sideways in a redesign launch. Most issues are only revealed after the publish button has been pressed. Adding to the difficulties of a redesign launch is often the numerous stakeholders. Even at the smallest of companies, they can (and sometimes do) veer a project off its intended path. I saw this happen with Boston.com when it relaunched in April 2014. (They’ve rebounded nicely in the past year.) So there are many issues to combat just to get off the ground, let alone launch. And that’s all before readers rip the final product to shreds. Because, you know, the Internet. I’m pleasantly surprised to see there have been few issues with the redesign of ESPN.com today. The sports behemoth has more news, info and commentary than any other website imaginable (and readers, too, with a self reported 91 million users in January), and yet it somehow figured out the shadowy pathway to handle this truly immense project with an unknown number of people likely shepherding it through today’s unveiling. Hats off to their digital team.

I think what is reflected in this redesign, which deserves some outside studying, is that despite competing interests for a wide range of verticals and subsections, there are some basic tenets that digital organizations are going to focus on no matter what. Tenets that I believe are key to any successful news operation today, regardless of size or scope. Here are five:

1. Mobile first — ESPN says 61 percent of their visitors came from a mobile device. This is in line with the overall trend for digital news enterprises. More and more readers are accessing content via their mobile devices while declines are being recorded for “desktop” only users. So it’s no surprise that ESPN focused on making a responsive website. (There appears to be three tiers, one for the full fledged site, another for the middling tablet and the last for mobile devices).

2. Real-time updates — Again, ESPN has more daily content it can possibly ever use being pumped into the Bristol brain trust. I’m sure, like it is for most major websites, the fight to get on the homepage is intense. What we’ve seen is that news organizations that have developed a stream — like Boston.com, for example — are able to quickly display new content on a site’s homepage without ever having to involve a curator of the homepage’s content. Readers will see more content this way, with links to articles, tweets from writers, videos, etc.

3. User experience — No website can ever underestimate the user experience. There’s obviously been a lot of thought put into this particular redesign, the flow of the site and its navigation. I’m sure with the changes made this will also be the top source of ESPN’s complaints. Designers can remark better than I on the pluses and flaws they see. But for the purposes of this post, it is extremely important to take care and respect the sensibilities of your readership. Digital savvy readers expect beautiful, modern and easy to read websites. Oftentimes that’s tough to do given all of the competing priorities. I would say that ESPN has successfully adhered to this tenet.

4. Video — The redesign’s emphasis on video smacks you in the face. More and more publishers are making the costly investment in video production, hoping to bank on increased ad spending on mobile video. With its vast array of digital properties, ESPN was already in a position to take advantage of the two concurrent trends at play here, and this redesign represents another step toward that.

5. Personalization — For ESPN, that means surfacing content on its users’ favorite sports teams. Translated for smaller news organizations, that means news your readers can use from their community. It’s certainly easier to address the personalization problem with sports and much harder for any general news organization, both to find and target content for fragmented audiences. The easiest way you already see this being done is with localized weather forecasts based on the location of your IP address. There’s certainly opportunity for innovation here.

I certainly expect ESPN to make some tweaks and changes in the days and weeks to come. Hopefully, they won’t take six years for another redesign. But I’m almost positive they will adhere to these five points of emphasis because that’s where the trends are heading. All news orgs would be wise to acknowledge as much in their next redesign.