Last January, Metro newspaper relaunched its website with a renewed focus on mobile.

But this wasn’t just a simple redesign, it was the beginning of a whole new approach to digital product development for the DMG Media-owned title, which emphasises incremental changes – guided by data and goals – over rigid structure.

Metro head of development David Jensen and product development director Jamie Walters, told TheMediaBriefing that the approach has paid off.

“We have released more features in nine months since we launched the new site than in the last three years,” says Walters, who oversaw the relaunch as director of product development and has since moved to run gaming spinoff Metro Play.

“Global mobile daily audience has more than doubled since January, our home page traffic has more than doubled, our global mobile unique views have gone up by nearly a factor of three and social referral traffic has gone up buy a factor of eight.”

Startup inspiration

The decision to put metrics at the heart of the development process had two triggers, according to Jensen.

The first was his and Walters’ experience spending six months developing a set of features around TV listings and social interaction that never saw the light of day. Both men say they might not have wasted so much time on if they’d more regularly tested and assessed whether the idea would have any value. 

The second trigger for Jensen was reading The Lean Start-Up, which led him to think how the same principles used by small young tech companies could be applied to an established media business. 

So when the relaunch happened, they decided to do things differently.

Goals not structures

Two years ago, the board overseeing Metro decided that increasing mobile audience should be a core target.

With really clear goals you allow people to be slightly more unstructured in the approach,” he says. “We define small pieces of functionality and have one person who runs ahead and will build tests around that functionality and see if they work.

Metro screenshot mobile“I’ve given the development team a large level of autonomy. I know they are pointing in the right direction and you need to sit back a bit and not get too involved.”

Walters says this approach only works when different parts of business, such as editorial, commercial and product development communicate with each other regularly. 

He says: “That cross-functional piece is really important. It’s not just structure, it’s the niche structures, it’s not formal niches it’s the contacts.”

He adds that this approach is not only quicker than trying to communicate plans and priorities top down, it also leads to more effective conversations and encourages “controlled dissent” that can show up flaws in bad ideas before time is wasted on them. 

Metrics on the mind

The Metro’s development team has a screen showing web traffic and many staff monitor metrics on their own second screens. 

Walters says: “It’s constant, it’s in the fabric of what you do. As management you have to reinforce that with the data always on show. 

“It’s there every time we have a conversation,” adds Jensen. “It’s not just the fact it’s real time it’s the fact it permeates everything.” 

The usefulness of metrics is reinforced by the incremental approach to new features. Because the team may only make one or two small tweaks in a day, rather than introducing a raft of new features all at once, they can pin point the impact of each change. 

“We’re very anal about putting little markers in our data. We can attribute that that change was made on that day,” says Walters. “A lot of what you do you are used to measuring was correlation. If you release four features in one go, how to you determine which one had the impact?”

This has another advantage, says Walters – happier staff: “We are more confident what we are doing is going to make a difference. That just breeds enthusiasm from the team – people like making a difference.”

Image via Flickr courtesy of Manitoba Coupon Maven – Michelle Roy used undera creative commons licence.