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The Strategy Behind Harvard Business Review’s Last Redesign

January 19, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy
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Harvard Business Review (HBR) may never overhaul its website again. Late last year, HBR debuted its first major site redesign in five years and, according to Eric Hellweg, Managing Director, Digital Strategy, this may be its last. No, this doesn’t mean that Hellweg believes that the site won’t have to evolve to keep pace with consumer demand and digital developments. Quite the contrary. HBR.org’s latest redesign fully embraces an agile methodology that will allow it to continuously iterate the site. “We need to stay close to our customers and make changes quickly,” said Hellweg.

Becoming an increasingly agile digital organization is a significant undertaking in terms of mindset and Hellweg said that HBR made organizational changes and used incentives to ensure that all employees worked cross-platform effectively. It also required “groundbreaking work by our tech team to make the site open, modular and flexible because, for us—like a lot of publishers—the future is ambiguous and we need to be able to quickly adapt.”

The site redesign took about a year and a half to complete because of the significant technological undertaking, but also because HBR employed extensive customer reviews to ensure that the focus stayed squarely on their needs. “We did user testing every week and all of the new features reflect customer requests and feedback.” One particularly significant piece of feedback HBR got out of user testing was that its registration page “completely missed the mark.” It took a bit longer to get it right—and involved sharing some of the user videos in which they found registering to be difficult with the development. But Hellweg says they “nailed it” and the process of regular user testing was so effective, that it has become a standard part of his ongoing development strategy.

Given that it is a subscription-based product with a rich reputation, Hellweg says “the bar was set very, very high. We are a premium brand making a premium product.” For years, subscribers to the magazine had received the standard fare: the print publication, an app and access to the archive. Hellweg called this “table stakes” and said the brand wanted to rethink the entire experience to make it more digitally centric and better reflect the workflow of its users today. “We know there are still people ripping out magazine pages and filing them or sharing them around the office. We wanted to create functionality that enabled them to do this better.” To that end, the site now features “My Library,” an area where registered users and subscribers can save articles and graphics, create reading lists and share those lists with others. Users can also track their activity over the past six months, enabling them to resurface things they may have read in the past that could be useful now; an additional personalization feature includes the ability to follow nearly 200 topics, which will be featured as a feed in their library. They now also offer a one-click payment option in the ecommerce platform for HBR Press books, toolkits and other products.HBRoneclick

The new site has also been visually streamlined and simplified, with an increased focus on graphics. In part, this reflects its growing mobile user-base (one third of its 4 million monthly users come from non-desktop devices and that number is climbing fast.) However Hellweg emphasized that they did a lot of user tests to be sure that they “aren’t sacrificing the desktop view and going overboard on mobile-first.” He also said that they are developing mobile-centric, and mobile-specific enhancements to their digital offerings.

Users can expect a steady stream of enhancements from now on, according to Hellweg. In the next three to six months, he says that the focus will be on enhancing the findability and usefulness of HBR’s largely evergreen archival content. “A central part of our value proposition is the caliber of our editors and what they deem important and relevant,” so the plan is to employ more curation and surface archival articles to continue to build out the highly personalized experience and make it easier for people to find relevant content.

Though Hellweg said he likes the idea of this being HBR’s last major redesign, he does acknowledge the possibility of major technological changes requiring another one at some point. He also points out that the premise of the agile methodology is to “always be improving,” which requires staying close to their readers — an approach that Hellweg finds “humbling and exciting. It is fascinating to really see, hear and watch firsthand how people engage with your content.”

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