Recently on The Next Great Thing podcast, I spoke with Georg Petschnigg, the Head of Product Design at The New York Times. He gave a fascinating inside look at the relationship between design, technology, and storytelling at the iconic, 171-year-old Gray Lady.
One great thing I learned: Designing for “time well spent” over stickiness promotes comprehension over addiction.
With rampant misinformation challenging public comprehension, and social platforms competing for our likes, shares, and ever-shortened attention spans (often at the expense of our mental health) Georg’s mission at The New York Times is, well, timely. Since 2021, he’s led product design efforts across the organization to translate news and stories from our complex world into user experiences that are delightful, useful, and clear.
“In tech parlance, The New York Times is a full-stack organization,” he told me. “It’s all the way from the genesis of the information, the reporting, to an incredible team of thousands of journalists, to a processing pipeline, a publishing pipeline, incredible apps, and a distribution channel. All of that is in-house. And we’re trying to tell these stories across a broad variety of topics, in multiple mediums.”
As both a news and tech organization, The Times adheres to a unique design ethos compared to typical digital products – like, say, a CRM SaaS platform or a banking app. That’s not to knock the value of great design for these products. But, designing the news bears a heftier responsibility because it needs to help people make sense of the world and help them make better decisions. The goal is to aid understanding, not to create addiction or rack up engagement metrics – the raison d'être for most social media platforms.
You see this ethos infused across the suite of products, stories, and features at The Times – like its News and Audio apps, Cooking, Games, and interactive multimedia reports that combine audio, video, data visualizations, maps, and more (this NYT article about the Maui wildfire is a great example). It shows up in information hierarchy in article layouts to font choices and weights to how readers explore live, unfolding news events. Every product and feature is deliberately designed for discovery, utility, and comprehension, not just “stickiness.”
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Finally, upholding this ethos will prove increasingly important as AI creates new ways for us to process and communicate information. Georg is optimistic that tools like generative AI, when guided by editorial integrity rather than raw scale, can make the news more accessible to more people without sacrificing facts and nuance. It can help translate stories into different languages, for example. But he’s also cautious about AI’s role in the newsroom. Where the stakes are truth and comprehension, there’s no place for hallucinations or made-up sources (I’m looking at you, chatGPT).
Though our news consumption habits have changed over the years, venerable publications like The New York Times still have a duty to help us parse reality. In a world dominated by phones, social media, algorithms, and AI, The Times strives to be an anchor, helping us discern what’s real and true. Design, in this context, serves a higher purpose – not just delighting users but enlightening them. Not just eliciting emotion but enabling comprehension. That’s a vital lesson for any organization.
In complex times, designing for time well spent might just offer the clarity we crave.
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