Design Leader Insights - Matt Raw on Design Operations at the New York Times

May 24, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a user experience consultancy focused on creating simple and intuitive digital experiences. Hey Matt, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Matt Raw: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here. 

Alex Smith: Of course. And yeah, as we get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context and background in your journey in UX?

Matt Raw: Sure. So if you go all the way back to sort of where I came out of school, I graduated with a history degree and a political science minor. So very sort of humanities liberal arts focus, didn't see design in front of me at the time, I felt I was like, on a path toward being a history professor or something like that, a teacher, maybe. I ended up going to grad school at the University of Michigan, for an archives program at first. But as part of that, I got introduced to their human computer interaction program and just kind of fell in love as somebody who had been tinkering with computers and the internet since the 90s to date myself. It was, I was just really captivated by sort of the possibilities there. Ended up switching, switching tracks and kind of the rest of history I, my first job out of grad school, I landed at an agency in Brooklyn, which gave me a huge breadth of experience, highly recommend agencies as a place to like, figure out what you really love within the design industry. And from there, I moved on to the Wall Street Journal, which is kind of where I fell in love with media, and then found my way over to the New York Times about nine years ago. And it's just been an amazing place to sort of learn and grow as a designer, and I've grown into new roles, become a manager of designers and have had a lot of good fortune to just sort of be around some of the rapid growth at the times of the last few years. So yeah, where I am today, I lead a group called culture and operations within the product design team. And we have a couple areas of focus. One is on design operations, which is brand new for us. I'd be happy to talk about that. And another area focuses on establishing kind of a centralized shared studio of designers and other folks who work on kind of thorny projects around the company.

Alex Smith: Tell me about working at like a top paper in that field and kind of how they approach design. And then like, I imagine there's some pretty interesting resources you may have that other companies don't have.

Matt Raw: I'll tell you, one of the things I remember when I started at the Times was just really feeling the gravity of that brand. You walk through the door, and it's like, oh, wow, this is the New York Times. And, and that's certainly I think, you know, I forget how old we are now, it's like a 170 year old company or something like that, right? Like, that's pretty unusual to work for a company that's been around for so long. You know, you feel that I guess when you come in as a designer, but on the other hand, you know, I think a lot of the, you know, I think there's a really healthy environment of wanting to push our product and our experience forward in ways that you know, where we're meeting needs, maybe that we've never met before as a newspaper. And I wouldn't say it's like a startup necessarily, but like, there's a real healthy sort of, feel of like, we want to innovate, we want to be inventive. We want to solve new problems, or play new roles in people's lives that we haven't played before. And so that, you know, that's very exciting. And that means you get to, you get to really push on all sorts of different problems, like how to get people to pay for the news to how to get them to, you're coming up with a new game, let's say for the games app, or, you know, playing playing a role in the kitchen with our cooking app. So yeah, it's been as a designer, just it's both sort of a humbling place to work, but also a very exciting place because you do have the recognition of that brand, but also kind of the freedom to explore lots of different spaces within the sort of realm of media. 

Alex Smith: New York Times, as you mentioned, 170 years old or something like that.  But I'm thinking that even in my lifetime, we used to get that paper growing up and now it's so digitized. It's awesome. The app's great. I'm wondering what you've seen changed and then maybe in the industry as a whole, where do you think that's headed? Like the the way that people consume news and information and content is changing day by day? So just kind of like that timeline would be interesting to learn about.

Matt Raw: You know, I've I think something that has always mattered for any news organization, and I think will just continue to matter even more, is this idea that like, of trust, and where your information comes from and can you trust it? And so I think there's a real role, there continues to be a role for any news organization there to be a place where, you know, we seek out facts, we try to find the truth and report it as best as we can. And I don't see that sort of fundamental mission changing anytime soon. And it feels like a thing that we need even more than ever.

Alex Smith: Tell me a little bit more about that studio model you were mentioning. I'm interested in hearing how that's structured. 

Matt Raw: Yeah, so this is this is kind of new for us. And kind of the insight that sparked the whole thing was realizing we have about 75 product designers on the team. The majority of them are embedded in cross functional teams, probably a pretty common model. You know, they just work in cross functional teams on their own roadmaps. One thing we were noticing was that, you know, that model is really optimized for speed and autonomy designers can like really push forward quickly with their teams, but they had a hard time sort of pulling back doing some of the important kind of work to connect across teams or to do more holistic thinking or to think maybe two or three years out, they wanted to do some envisioning and it's not that they weren't able, like capable of doing it. It's just that the way they structure their teams made it hard for them to do to sort of pull up and do that work. So we established a shared studio, in part to kind of help with that. And to put some dedicated design staffing around some problems that were harder for teams to pick up just as part of their day to day. So yeah, so we've been at this for about a year, it's been, I think it's been pretty successful so far. It's been fun to sort of operate these projects a little bit differently than I had been used to, at least in my tenure at the Times before this.

Alex Smith:  And then how does that relate to the initiatives around design ops that you're implementing?

Matt Raw: Yeah, so I would say the overlap between design operations, and the shared studio really is around sort of process and how we work and our ways of working. So design operations, at least the formulation of it that we have the Times like, we're really focused on, you know, giving designers whatever they need to be successful with their work. You know, to start, we focused a lot on hiring processes, we focused a lot on sort of cultural initiatives, things like that. We've also looked at, I think, the overlap with the shared studio, you see that in places where we're trying to just work more effectively with other teams. We'll work on a collaboration model that's meant to clarify sort of roles and responsibilities between folks who are working on a different project. And the idea is that like we're trying to, we're trying to create space for designers to be creative and to do their best work. So I think that's something that both the shared studio and the design operations part of, of my role have in common.

Alex Smith: Yeah, and you partially answered my next question. It seems like the team loves this. But how are you measuring the impact of design ops specifically? Or how will it be measured? I guess what, when that time comes? 

Matt Raw: It's a great question. It was one of the first questions I had stepping into this role. We didn't have design operations established before this. So it was important to me that we, you know, we had an opportunity to establish it but also I felt real pressure to say like, hey, how will anyone else know that this is actually successful? You know, the honest answer is we're figuring it out as we go. I think there are some places where you can see it really clearly. So we spent a significant amount of time last year, focused on our hiring processes, getting standardized documentation for managers, making sure we could take as much off their plates as we could. And what we saw, you know, from, I guess, from a metric standpoint, is that we closed, we were able to hire a ton of people last year, more than we've ever been able to hire. And I think that just sort of increased velocity in our hiring processes is sort of one metric. But it really depends on the nature of the work we're doing in design ops.

Alex Smith: Matt, what type of advice do you have for new designers entering the field today?

Matt Raw: I got a couple things that I would say to those students or to anyone who's entering. One is that in terms of just the hiring, like it, markets are cyclical. And while things are bad in tech, they're not necessarily bad everywhere. And I suspect if you looked around for, you know, other industries, like government or healthcare or nonprofits, that there are still quite a few opportunities for designers to break in. And the other is just like when I think about AI in particular, something I keep coming back to is as designers, something that I imagine it's quite hard for AI to replicate. If somebody's worried about AI coming and taking your job as a designer, there's a level of imagination and critical thinking that you have to possess as a designer. And how you do the work, obviously, maybe there could be a lot of efficiencies there that will come over time. But fundamentally being imaginative about problem solving or problem finding, thinking critically about you know, how best to, you know, get from A to B, those qualities to me seem very, very human and also very, like durable over the long haul. So I would I guess I sort of advise students to like, just really lean into that, l obviously, hone your skills and your craft, but like, but I think over the long run, being imaginative and being a great sort of thinker is really going to serve you well.

Alex Smith: Well, Matt, thank you so much for joining the series today.

Matt Raw: Thank you for having me. It's been a really fun conversation.