My team of three School of Visual Arts MFA Interaction Design graduate students created a micropayment solution for a case study about paying for access to the New York Times. As the team's researcher, I started by exploring the current media subscription landscape with a competitive analysis and a survey to learn more about how people access the news and what motivates them to pay or not. Benchmarking the current NYT experience through usability testing helped us understand user pain points. Finally, concept testing with non-subscribers led further design iterations.
Methods ◦ Deliverables ◦ Tools ◦ Team ◦ Duration
Survey ◦ Competitive Analysis ◦ Affinity Mapping ◦ User interviews ◦ Concept testing ◦ Usability testing
User flows ◦ Wireframes ◦ Interactive prototypes
Figma ◦ Zoom ◦ Google Forms + Sheets
Sarah Ann Jump, Researcher
Myunghwe Ku and Priyal Mehta, Designers
Advised by SVA professor, Matt Raw, VP of Design at the New York Times
Completed over five weeks in the spring of 2021
When non-subscribers have exhausted their free New York Times articles, they are met with a paywall that blocks them from reading further. This is a complex problem that is intentionally created by publications that need to be sustained by subscription revenue. For users, it interrupts their reading experience and sends them through a flow that can be confusing — first asking them to create a free account, and then later offering a monthly subscription deal — without returning to the article they were trying to read.
For this case study, we focused on adults in the US under the age of 45 who access the news on their smartphones without a New York Times subscription or free account. The nature of reading on mobile means that many applications are competing for the attention of the reader at once.
A pay-what-you-wish slider allowing a New York Times reader to quickly pay a small amount for a one-time, one-day subscription to access the news.
Responsibilities of my role as the team UX researcher included: leading a team workshop to write research goals, designing the survey, fielding the survey, analyzing the quantitative and qualitative survey results, conducting the competitive analysis, recruiting participants for concept and usability testing, leading user interviews and testing sessions, and presenting the findings.
To learn more about our users' news habits, their thoughts about paying for the news, identify competitors, and recruit for user interviews, we fielded a study using Google Forms. We received 121 responses.
When asked which device they use most often to get their news, the vast majority of respondents, including 77% of those under 45, selected smartphone.
Respondents most often get their news from social media and news websites or apps. The most common social media platforms for those under 45 are Instagram and Facebook.
70% of respondents who do not work as a journalist or at a news organization indicated that they financially support at least one news outlet.
When asked why they pay for the news, the most common reason cited by respondents was that they support quality journalism and the people who create it.
The most common reason respondents said they don't pay for the news was that most information is freely available online. Many respondents also said they could not afford the expense of a monthly subscription.
Conducting an audit of the current user experience for New York Times readers helped us identify pain points and make hypotheses about possible solutions. The Time first asks users to create a free account and then offers them a subscription deal, before an onboarding process to select email newsletters and digests about various news topics.
Using information from our survey, we identified key competitors and compared the experience for non-subscribers meeting the paywall and being asked to create an account or subscribe. The subscription process with the fewest number of steps was the Washington Post, which also tied with the Wall Street Journal in offering the most forms of payment. The New York Times offers you one subscription option when creating a free account, while its competitors offer multiple subscription packages and let the user compare features when making their selection.
Our first concept shows the reader the beginning of the article. When they go to scroll to read more, a pop up appears offering them a micropayment of $.50 to access the Times for 24 hours. The second concept aims to make the appeal for money more personal by giving easy access to more information about the journalists behind the story, plus new features for subscribers, such as the ability to emotionally react to the article and the option to subscribe to updates on the topic.
For the micropayment concept, the idea is simplicity. The user is able to pay for their 24 hour news subscription with just one screen and then they return to the article they were trying to read.
We prototyped our three design concepts using existing New York Times articles and Figma: journalist information, emotional reactions, and 50 cent micropayments for 24 hour access.
User testing participant Meg experiences the NYT free account onboarding
I led four, 45-minute, remote, moderated testing sessions. From our survey responses, I recruited participants who were not New York Times subscribers. Starting with a few interview questions allowed the participants to expand on their views of the news and subscription models. Usability testing the current NYT free account and subscription sign up process revealed users' pain points and helped benchmark our concepts. Concept testing our 50 cent micropayment idea, plus three other concepts —emotional reactions, author information, and a stay updated feature — guided our feature prioritization and led to further design iteration.
From our user testing, we found low desirability for the emotional reactions and journalist information features. Our participants said these features would not make them more likely to pay for a subscription to the New York Times.
Participants found the current New York Times free account signup process to be too long. Most participants said they likely would not engage in it if they perceived the process to have too many steps.
When participants encountered a popup blocking them from reading an article, they described their feelings as: "jarring", "nuisance", "visual assault", "frustrating", and "annoying".
Our research participants were intrigued by the micropayments idea. They liked being able to read the headline and beginning of the story before paying. To our surprise, they said that if given the option to pay whatever amount they wanted, they would likely pay more than 50¢.
Based on the results of user testing, we decided to pursue and further iterate on the micropayment idea. We changed the interface to include a slider that allows users to pay what they wish, ranging from $0.25 to $2.
We also updated the payment options to better reflect the Times' current options.
Updates to the copywriting, such as changing "Thanks for reading The Times" to "Continue reading this Times story", intend to alleviate confusion around whether or not there is more story to be read.
By starting with a survey to get to know the audience we were designing for, we were able to build the rest of the project around different parts of the results. The most frequently used devices and social media platforms helped us confirm our problem space and imagine the context for our interactions. The competitive analysis was informed by the other news outlets that respondents subscribe to. The qualitative open-ended questions about why respondents do or do not pay for their news was very insightful and showed us the spectrum of mental models out there. Asking if respondents were open to participating in further research resulted in a surprising amount volunteers, and we were able to thoughtful recruit based on the information that had already provided in the survey.