Creating an adaptive experience that keeps seven million customers happy

January 27, 2016 - By Kimberley Jones

How do you keep more than 7 million* individuals happy and engaged each month on news sites? It’s a big number and an even bigger question but one that Kimberley Jones, Lead User Experience Architect at Fairfax Media, has been working on answering.

As customer experience becomes increasingly important on digital news platforms, our readers’ insatiable appetite for a device-agnostic experience is being realised on smartphone, tablet and desktop with a new adaptive digital solution.

We know our readers are enjoying more news, information and entertainment on more devices and in more places than ever before. That’s why we’ve been busy creating new adaptive web technology for our mastheads.

New adaptive sites for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, Brisbane Times and WAToday that modify how content is displayed to the reader -depending on their device - represents one of the most significant updates to our sites in the last 10 years.

 The refreshed masthead website design makes it easier to discover a wider range of our quality and engaging news content, and delivers a digital news platform that is ready for continual optimisation and innovation.

We utilised both qualitative and quantitative user research throughout the change process to evaluate customer experience and help direct the adaptive digital solution.

Using a ‘research roadmap’, we engaged in regular user testing to provide qualitative insights, along with a combination of web analytics, customer feedback and a/b testing for quantitative data. Together, these research insights provide a powerful narrative of our users’ ‘pain points’ and preferences, as well as highlighted what our audiences wanted more of from our products.

The new adaptive sites (currently in beta testing) are device or screen size agnostic. This means that when a customer visits the site, it will detect their screen size and display the best of three layouts for that device. For instance, a customer’s screen size could be anything from a small smartphone, phablet or tablet device in portrait view, to a tablet in landscape view or large desktop monitor.

Content accessed on our adaptive sites remains consistent on any screen, but the layout and formatting of content may change to provide an optimal experience for the screen’s real estate. For example, a story read on a smartphone might only show the headline, whereas on desktop that same story will display the headline, thumbnail and brief summary text.

In comparison, traditional responsive sites are predominantly fluid, but with less control over layout. So on a digital news platform, an adaptive approach provides a better user experience given the type of content being displayed.

Validating the customer experience via user testing has given us the best gauge for how our audiences will respond to the new adaptive sites. We already know that when users come to our news sites they want a quick news update and don’t have time to re-orientate themselves with a changed layout.

Our approach of initially rebuilding the site ‘like-for-like’ and then innovating later has paid off, as it provided familiarity instead of the ‘change-shock’ experienced when a product makes radical changes all at once. When test participants were asked for their overall impression, they reacted positively to the clean, clear design and familiarity.

“It’s clean, clear and very familiar. It’s a natural evolution of the design. If the update took place tomorrow, I’d be fine with that.”

- Sydney Morning Herald user testing participant

Personally, I see the global navigation as the icing on the cake for the beta site. Previously, when viewing an article or section, users were unable to move between sections without returning to the homepage. The updated navigation on the new adaptive sites enables users to browse site sections more efficiently and provides a consistent experience across smartphone, tablet and desktop. The global navigation also provides a huge benefit from an SEO point-of-view.

With the gradual rollout of the beta site underway, we are now well placed to take users’ feedback into consideration and make improvements prior to each release. This ensures we are optimising the experience over time versus revalidating what we already know. 

Visit the beta site now and be sure to leave your feedback at and

* Source: Nielsen Online Ratings - Hybrid October 2015

Originally published on INMA Ideas Blog on 27th January, 2016


Kimberley Jones

Leader User Experience Architect - Fairfax Media