UX Insider Interview – Jane Austin on being Head of UX at The Telegraph
by Damian Rees, Founder & UX Director

UX Insider Interview – Jane Austin on being Head of UX at The Telegraph


Can you tell me a little bit about your role at The Telegraph?

Yeah, I’m Head of UX. When I started, it was me and one other person. I’ve been here 18 months, and this year has been largely about growing the team. So I started with a lot of freelancers and people that I knew, which meant I was able to set the culture and then take my time hiring really good people, which I have done. So I’ve got a really awesome team of 25 people now, I’m really lucky.

Previously, The Telegraph wasn’t well known for having a UX team, so I’ve done a lot of work to make sure people know there is a UX team here that are doing good things, and it’s a good place to come and join. And that’s paid off. We’ve got a good research team, and also prototypers, which allow us to build variances to research. We’ve got a really good research programme now. From Blue Sky thinking, Google Ventures style-design, research bids, and all the way to something we call Testing Tuesday.

So, every couple of sprints, whatever we are working on has to be validated with user research, and then we iterate and improve. It’s gone really well. And we have that in-house.

We just built a really cheap testing lab, so rather than doing it off site and nobody would go, we just made it really simple and made it part of the fabric of the building. Anyone can wander in and see real-life users and reflect on how the design is working and they iterate from it. Which is brilliant.


“So, every couple of sprints, whatever we are working on has to be validated with user research, and then we iterate and improve.”


Do you use quantitative data as part of your process?

We do lots of A/B testing and multi-variant testing; we use that to explore design decisions and try to optimise our designs. That means we get large-scale numbers of users so we are able to understand the impact of what we do. I think having a little quant data is incredibly important, and it’s interesting how a lot of UX teams don’t really engage with the quant side of research. So that’s something we’ve tried to make part of the team as well.

When an idea is put forward, we often do a version of it and put it on the site to see how people will react. Then once it’s live, we continue to optimise. So there’s a whole lot of different ways we are using it right now. It’s still quite early days and quite experimental, but we’ve got a full-time member of staff now and a full-time coder, and we’ve got a big programme we are about to start.


What would you say is a typical day like for you?

When I come in and start the morning, we have a stand-up circle to make sure everything is going well. We’ve got leads on each project, so each bit of the site has a lead on it … so I just go round in the stand-up making sure everything is going ok. I’m in quite a lot of meetings, viewing work, discussing how we can improve stuff, having one-to-ones with the team. A lot of the time I seem to just ask annoying questions—that’s my role. People show me work, and I say, “What would happen if this would happen?” If I can ask one really good annoying question a week, I’ve done well.


What success metrics do you have for your role?

Right now, it’s about re-platforming. This year is all about getting off our old platform and onto AEM, which is our new CMS system. It’s all about launching and delivery. So all the success measures I have are about growing the team and delivering what we said we would. Once we’ve settled down, which will probably be another six months’ time, there will be different success metrics, which, I would imagine will be about revenue and engagement. But right now, because we are in such a period of transition, it’s all about us just doing the job.


“we have to give our users a really clear navigation, a beautiful reading experience, and make sure they know what they want to read next”


How do you deliver a great user experience with a content paywall?

We don’t really have a paywall. We have a meter of twenty pages, and a lot of our audience don’t hit the meter. So a lot of people might come in and just read one article, and what we want to do is get them to read two articles.  And that means we have to give our users a really clear navigation, a beautiful reading experience, and make sure they know what they want to read next—which means at the end of the article, the related articles are very well laid out and beautifully written.

But it’s also about making sure the paywall is really elegantly done, that they know why they are paying, what they are getting, and that the whole experience of subscribing is really well done too. Sites like The New York Times just stick a paywall everywhere. But we are trying to something that’s a bit more elegant; more about selling what our product is.


Last year you described the process of evolving The Telegraph into a digital first organisation as “brilliant but terrifying”. Why was that?

The reason it’s terrifying is because you are not quite sure what’s going to work and what’s not, and you have to be prepared to fail. And that’s as a person, a team leader, and an organisation. You have to make bets and hope you are making the right one, and you try to mitigate those bets by doing user research, by making sure you’ve got a really good team, and by making sensible decisions. But we may still as a team get things wrong.

It’s completely unforged ground. Newspapers as a whole are struggling to operate in a digital world, so it’s an incredible challenge. And I really love it here—it’s a great job, and I’m really proud to work here, so I want to make sure that we are doing something brilliant. It’s not easy, so that’s why I said that.

It’s not like selling toasters …although if we were selling toasters, it would be about the funnel and the metrics associated with it. It’s interesting, because we do MVT, which works really well in that environment. You know where people are dropping into the funnel, you know the next step. Whereas we’ve got this incredible, complex business where we make a lot money from advertising, so people see one more page, they see more adverts, then they hit a meter. Both of these are really good things, but they may be contradictory, so how do you balance them out? How do you get people to go to the commerce funnel that’s partly related to something they’ve read?

The news itself is nebulous and in flux, because different stories have different impacts at different times of day. Which is really interesting, but sometimes you are not sure how much impact you are having, because it’s a long-term thing to really understand what these changes are. And we haven’t really launched the whole website yet.


Do you have a standard user experience process that you always follow?

No. We’ve got a UX toolbox, and we just try and take the most appropriate tools. Our main focus is to be as lean as possible. How can we get the answer and do really good work with as little expenditure as possible? A few of us have been in start-ups or agencies, and we’ve got that philosophy of trying to get things out, do MVPs, and work on them to continually improve.

Probably the biggest thing is not to do huge amounts of documentation or take ages to deliver something. It’s the opposite of that. We prototype a lot, so we can reduce documentation. We do regular, iterative, user testing, we do MVPs, and we do experiments using MVT. There’s so much complexity within the kind of research tools we use to understand the proposition, and the different types of research we do to see if we got it right, and the different design techniques. But generally, it’s fast and iterative.


Is there anything that prevents you from following your ideal UX process?

We’re broadly following it. Where we don’t, it’s often just time. Things take a long time to develop, and things happen unexpectedly. So then you have to make your MVP smaller because you have less time to do the research. But generally, people have bought into the process. We’ve had very little trouble getting people to come and watch the user research and just listen. It’s remarkable. I think we’ve got a really good product team, and we also understand that this is a good way to deliver good products. They all bought into it, so the business is behind it too.


“So now that I’ve seen the power of doing regular, small research and gradually moving towards a great solution, that’s one thing I can’t live without.”


Have you got any favourite methods or UX tools in your toolkit that you couldn’t do your job without?

Yes: talking to users.  Talking to your customers. Understanding them, getting to know them, showing your work to them and just continually improving. You know, back in the day, we used to just guess when creating wireframes, and then things would get launched. And they’d never been near a user! And I look back at that and I think, “God were we all insane, did we not realise that?”

So now that I’ve seen the power of doing regular, small research and gradually moving towards a great solution, that’s one thing I can’t live without. You know, it could be sketching, it could be showing a prototype, it could be Illustrator or Photoshop or whatever. These are all kinds of things that are interchangeable, but having regular user feedback, I think, is the absolute minimum that you need.


” …the big takeaway was, big buttons. Drunk people like big buttons!”


So in your keynote at UX Scotland earlier this year, you mention that you user-tested the sports section in a pub rather than a lab. How did that work?

Oh yes, we just went to the pub really. We do quite a bit of guerrilla testing. We’ve only done it once in a pub, but that one was a funny story really. We were wondering what context the new World Cup site was going to be used in. It would probably stay up on screen; would people pay attention?; they might be drunk; checking the news during the match. So we thought, “How can we replicate this?” And I saw a blog post—I think quite a tongue-in-cheek blog posting—about drunk user research. So we just did it.

We went to the sports pub round the corner when a match was on, and we just asked people what they thought of the prototype. It was great, it was really funny. People really liked it. And the big takeaway was, big buttons. Drunk people like big buttons! Go to where your users are, I think is certainly the message to take from that.


What do you think are your biggest challenges in the next 12 months?

The new site should be finished by December. What is the next thing we can do as a business that’s going to add the most value? I think probably a lot of the commerce stuff. The challenges of making advertising work. How can we do better, smarter advertising? Personalisation is also really important. Not just to give better, more relevant adverts, but also to give better, more relevant stories to read next.

The content management system itself, the authoring environment—how journalists can report the stories direct onto the site quickly and easily. The faster we can do that, the more effective we’re going to be.  And the more relevant the stories we show to people, the more effective the advertising will be.



What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned at The Telegraph?

Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. If you don’t understand something, quite often, other people don’t understand, or it’s something that maybe the users might not understand. Just be really honest, and be yourself. I feel very much myself here. I’ve got a lovely team and I come to work happy. I’ve hired people that I’m pleased to see in the morning.

To come into work and just feel really comfortable with who I am and who the team are gives me the confidence to be able to ask the silly questions or to get things wrong and to be able to be really open.. and for other people to get things wrong and experiment. Not to be scared of failing, but to make it a culture of learning, rather than a culture of being scared of failing.


Do you encounter any resistance to the UX process? How do you counter it if you do?

Often people say, “Well, you’ve just shown this bit of design to five people, how on earth could five random people mean anything?” So you’ve got to explain that it’s not just five people, it’s cumulatively up to eighty. And they’re not random, they’re chosen to match the demographic.  We can pick up about 80% of usability issues with five people. That’s been the education thing. We still get people saying, “So what, it doesn’t matter if five random people say this, I’m an expert, I know better.”

We try to get people to come along and see the research, to explain that it’s not just a one-off thing that happens at the end of a project. It’s an integral part of the process, and we’re doing it regularly. It allows us to gradually improve. We’re not saying that these five people alone have the answer; it’s about seeing people regularly and gradually getting to the answer. And also listening to the people who are the experts too.


How did you first get into UX?

So I did a philosophy masters, which rendered me completely unemployable. Then I went travelling and taught English for a while, so I could carry on travelling. There are all these poor people all over the world with a Scottish accent now. I came back to London and got a job teaching refugees English, and the college I was working in had invested all this money in an IT learning suite. It was all on CD-ROMs; you would put them into the computer, and instead of saying things like “Here’s the answer”, it would say “Feedback”. It was really stupid, I was really annoyed with it.

Co-incidentally, the college was also offering courses in Director, so I got onto the Director course and did my own CD-ROMs, and I discovered what I was doing was a thing called usability. Then I got onto a Hypermedia course at the University of Westminster with a chap called Richard Barber, who is awesome. It was great, the kind of course where you could experiment and learn.

And then I was very lucky to get a job at Deepend, which did go spectacularly bankrupt, but it was an awesome place to work. It really felt we were on the cusp of something. After that, I set up my own business for a while. I wasn’t very good at the business bit, and then suddenly I blink an eye and a lifetime’s gone by.


“The people I’ve hired, they’ve all got a real hunger to learn. Maybe they’re not massively experienced, but they go to a lot of talks and conferences. They care, and can talk passionately about UX.”


What advice would you give to somebody who wants to join a team like yours? Is there something that you look for? Is there something that gets noticed?

The people I’ve hired, they’ve all got a real hunger to learn. Maybe they’re not massively experienced, but they go to a lot of talks and conferences. They care, and can talk passionately about UX. So when they come into the interview, you can just sense the passion and the depth and how much they’ve thought about UX.

Unfortunately, a lot of places you have to intern in, and that closes doors to people who aren’t coming from a reasonably well-to-do family. So I don’t like that. Maybe people have done a little personal project, or they’ve done a blog or something; there’s other ways that they can show that they are really smart and have passion.


What separates a good UXer from a great one?

Someone who really thinks around the whole problem and is continually wanting to learn and all the time reading and thinking about “How can I be better?”. Not complacent. Always asking questions, always challenging themselves. I think we’ve got some great people on the team, and they all have that in common.


“Try and hire the absolute best team you can. Hire people better than you. Don’t be scared of that.”


What advice would you give to somebody who is just about to start a Head of UX role in a similar company?

Maybe get a mentor, or talk to someone else who is a head of UX elsewhere, to bounce ideas off. Don’t be alone, get allies within the business. Make sure you’ve got a good deputy person as well to lean on. Try and hire the absolute best team you can. Hire people better than you. Don’t be scared of that.

You don’t have to know everything and you don’t have to do everything. Don’t think you will have to be across everything, because you’ll kill yourself. Don’t be afraid to delegate because it empowers your team and they feel that they own things, then they’ll do the best they can. If you keep all the knowledge in your head make yourself irreplaceable, you’re going to kill yourself and you’re going annoy your team in the process.

You have to be strong enough just to let everything go and let them learn and make their own mistakes and support them when they do, and absolutely have their backs so they can trust you. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know”, ‘cause of course people don’t know everything.


What piece of work are you most proud of at The Telegraph, and why is that?

I like Project BABB, because it was so different to the kinds of projects that The Telegraph had done before. We have some young funny voices here, voices that were being heard on social media. But they hadn’t really been heard as part of the mainstream website. So to give those people a voice and do something fresh and quite different to what The Telegraph had done before… it was really simple, we didn’t have to design or over-engineer anything. It was just really simple and really clever.

I’m also really proud of the new website we’re doing. It’s very different and it looks great. It’s really well thought through.


Where do you go for inspiration?

Gosh, all sorts of things. I try to make sure I go to talks a lot. I go to talks slightly outside UX likegraphic design talks, or talks about behavioural psychology. I try to make sure I go to about three talks a month. Salon, things at the British Library, all of those sort of things. I talk to people a lot, and I read a lot as well. Again, not things about UX. Often I will read stories about someone at Google, or a psychology book. Just having that sort of hungry mind.


Are there any examples of UX that you look at and think they’ve totally nailed it?

I just love Uber. You just know what their proposition is and what job they’re doing. And everything is relentlessly focussed on that. It’s about convenience. They do everything to make you feel comfortable. They’re just this fantastic experience, it’s so brilliant.

On the contrary, SoundCloud have lost their way. I loved SoundCloud, they were amazing. But it feels like perhaps their core proposition isn’t so clear anymore. It feels that in the way Uber is just so clear about what they are doing, SoundCloud is just so unclear.

As a UX designer, it’s really understanding what the proposition is, and what it is that you have to deliver, and what your audience wants. Everything should follow from that. I think they are a really good contrast, in how one of them is doing something so simple, so focussed, and so brilliant, and the other one had been brilliant, but now seems to be drifting from its core proposition.


What is your vision of the future of UX design? Where do you see it going?

I don’t see it going anywhere. I think the growth and the understanding of product management is going to have an impact on UX. In the past, User Experience designers just created wireframes and threw them at designers, and they hadn’t really talked to business people and they hadn’t talked to customers. Now, UXers have been really talking to customers, and I think we’ve done that really well. What we need to get better at is looking at the product managers and understanding the business proposition, and how this thing is going to make money, and what job it’s got to do.

That’s what’s going to make you a really good UX designer. It’s not just about doing something that’s pretty. What job is it doing? Does it really do that job? And then have you done it, have you executed it as best you can? And that also helps you understand MVP. I think really good UX people are going to drift closer to being product people, and vice versa. I think it will be very interesting if we just watch what’s going on in Silicon Valley and the start-ups there. I think they’ll be what’s going to impact here. They are who we should watch and learn from.


Thanks for reading. We’ve got some really exciting UX insider interviews lined up on our mission to interview top UX people. If you would like to be interviewed, or you’d like us to interview anyone in particular please get in touch

You can find Jane on Twitter: @msjaneaustin or see more in our UX Insider series

UX Consultant Emma Peters

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