Behind The Redesign: a conversation with Pitchfork’s tech team

A digital-native publication, indie bible Pitchfork revealed a brand new version of its site last month. It did not take long for haters to storm the new layout, supposedly reminiscent of an average musical blog. « What the hell did they do to Pitchfork??? » yelled the fierce hipster-ish crowd. To sort out this passionate debate, I was lucky enough to chat with the creative and tech masterminds at Pitchfork. So what on Earth did they do to Pitchfork?

Click here for the French version of the interview.
Editor’s note : This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lost In Transition: Hi guys, so what were you thinking while working on this big redesign? What were your main priorities? I guess moving to responsive design was on the top of your list.

Joy Burke, Digital Art Director: Yeah, from the design perspective, moving to a responsive environment was the main priority. The site now has this unified structure which is also more flexible for all our content, and less dependent on sections.

Neil Wargo, Senior Developer : Our mobile version was not that bad. But it is true that would have liked this to come sooner. Our initial plan was to launch the new site a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, it’s a 20-year-old website, and we had already a lot to handle.

I guess you also had an audience target in mind while sketching your ideas. Would you say the redesign was traffic-driven?

Neil: I don’t think so. The content hasn’t changed much since the launch. The only aspect that underwent a real revision is that we grouped the News, Pitch and Tracks sections into a sort of single channel called « The Latest », which is updated throughout the day.

As far as we’ve approached it, I don’t think we were specifically trying to target a specific audience but rather to make it more accessible to everybody. And responsive is a big aspect of that, making the site more friendly to as many devices as we could.

Matt Dennewitz, Vice President for Product: There is also the discoverability aspect with the new genre filtering feature.

Neil: Yeah, this one is a big deal and a first step for us. In terms of going after an audience, it might be for people that dont want to feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff we cover.

Joy: I think we cater better to 2 different types of readers: the ones that want to dive in and know exactly what kind of content they want to read by genre, and then the other ones that want to see everything. But it wasn’t specified towards any new audience… even if we always want to grow our audience.

Neil: We just felt the best way to grow would be by adding functionality rather than simply going after a user target.

Let’s talk a bit about the criticism we have heard on the web after the launch of the new design. The official statement said that the move was meant to « invite deeper exploration and to simplify the experience ». But some users have complained about the visual hierarchy of the site, especially on the desktop homepage. What are your thoughts on this?

Neil: I think the biggest issue is that everything is not crammed towards the top now, or above the fold. We think that the fold isn’t as important as it used to be, and a big problem the old site had was that it was very compartmentalized. Unfortunately that meant that stuff like features, which we really like and want to showcase, would always end up at the bottom of the homepage. Now we can put any of these things at the top, get them the attention we think they deserve. So the goal was to add flexibility at the expense of small compartments.

Joy : The homepage is so different that people find it hard to adjust, no matter if its a good change or not. Change is difficult but we’re really excited by the new one, as it opens up opportunities for us to do so much more with the homepage. The overall experience is better in that sense of setting a hierarchy.

Pitchfork before after
Pitchfork’s homepage, before and after.

Neil : Yeah we pushed towards what we think is important, rather than what belongs to a specific block of content.

So you assume that most users will scroll their way down to the bottom of the page. Do you have user data to support this idea?

Joy : It’s a continued part of the process. We have wheels in motion to track that kind of data and we’ll continue to make improvements as we understand how our users are interacting with the new site, opposed to what we predicted or hoped for.

What is your reply to those who feel album reviews have been demoted?

Neil: Well, I don’t think that’s true.

Matt: We only moved them further down the page, but that’s not like a conscious effort to demote them.

Joy: They are a handful of pixels lower down but they are given such a better presentation. The new design doesn’t hide information behind a hover state the way we did before. We laid it all out there. I think it was worth moving the section down a bit for the sake of giving each album review more space and better presentation.

How did you come up with the genre filtering feature? It’s quite a bold shift to try and categorize music…

Neil: It’s something that’s been on our wishlist forever. Filtering is just useful to find something you care about.

Joy: And the thing about it is you don’t have to use it either. The content is still there the same way we always presented it.

One of the massive product additions is the new site-wide audio player. Was it a challenge to build?

Neil: It’s really the same back-end structure, like the previous player we used. We used to host our own tracks and serve them over Flash but we don’t do that anymore to make everything mobile-friendly. Now we have Soundcloud and Bandcamp, which are easy to work with.

Matt: But upgrading the overall experience inside the browser is kind of hard to do.

Joy: That’s definitely one of the pieces we’re still continuing to work on.

On the organisational side, what was the trigger of the redesign? Was it just a natural process?

Matt: It’s something we wanted to do for a very long time but it’s been constantly deprioritized. Last August, after our music festival, we finally got to the point where it became our No.1 priority.

Joy: You have to give a deadline to something as huge as that. Once we finally had our March deadline, it was easier to put things in motion.

Did the Condé Nast acquisition have anything to do with it? Did they push the redesign?

Neil: We really started this long before the Condé Nast acquisition, so their influence was pretty minimal. They came, they saw it, they liked it, they let us do our thing. The only real change is that we now use their ad system, but it was purely technical.

Matt: Most of the time, advertising comes as a secondary thing, like « Ugh we need to put ads on it now ». And we also did this a lot, we had ads everywhere that weren’t easy to control or to display. So thanks to Joy we figured out how to make the ads (both designated by Pitchfork and Condé Nast) feel better.

Who was involved in the redesign? Did everyone have a word to say, including the editorial team?

Matt: Yeah, everyone from people very top to very bottom of the orgchart were involved in this. Editorial played a great role in spot-checking all our decisions, making sure that we’re not thinking simply in terms of layout.

Joy: We wanted to make sure we understood all the different scenarios that we needed to account for, from how to set the type to how the layout should work. There were times when we would have one layout going and realize that the headlines were off 9 times out of 10. So working with them let us understand how things needed to be.

Was it hard carrying out this massive project from Chicago while the editorial team is based in New York?

Neil: Well, we’re used to working that way already. As a company, we adopted Slack a year ago, which I think really opened up the channels of communication even more between New York and Chicago. And we also have one of our development staff who is based in NY so we have a direct line of communication there.

Matt: Coming up as a digital company, we’re pretty good at digital communication!

Joy: And here in Chicago, our design and dev teams are right next to each other. So that did make it really easy for us to constantly be back and forth checking things, like going from the design process into development.

How is the new website going to influence the global editorial policy? Are you gonna refine your coverage and focus on specific formats?

Neil: No, the editorial end of things operates pretty separately. At no point was there any will of doing things differently from what they’ve done now.

Joy: There is always new editorial directions or ideas, but its not directly related to how we approach the redesign.

I read that your product approach will now be more dynamic. How is this going to change the way you work?

Neil: I think the redesign gives us more flexibility. The previous site lasted a long time but there were little hacks everywhere when we needed something to work in a specific section. So i feel like we smoothed over a lot of those, it’s no longer a sort of Frankenstein mess.

Joy: Yeah, we have a solid and organised structure to build from now.

Neil: Our homepage is not set in stone, we already have several ideas of how we wanna shuffle things and have different templates. That we’ll come out over time.

So are you satisfied with the global feedback you’re getting?

Neil: As for the constructive feedback, yes! But « this sucks, bring the old one back » really doesn’t help. When it’s pointed or specific, we definitely take that in. I don’t mind people not liking the site, I know some people aren’t going to like it, that’s just how things are.

Joy: It can’t please everybody!

Neil: But you can at least get it to the point where you understand why. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Are you already planning some adjustments?

Neil: Yeah, we’re going through the good list of stuff that didn’t get fully fleshed out. There are new features that we want to roll out, to make the site even simpler and more approchable. There is a balance there, that we haven’t quite struck yet,. We are continuing to work and iterate to find what works for almost everybody.

Joy: And we should say that this is for our users. We do pay attention, we wanna make something awesome for people.
So what’s next to come on the product side? What should we expect?

Matt: Hmm, we’ll probably redesign the website! (Laughs)

Neil: What we’re really excited about is that we’ve all had our heads down for 6-8 months on the redesign, so we haven’t been able to focus on other things, like cover stories. So now our time is a little more open to do more special features.

I think what we have now is a foundation. We want to add more filtering capabilities like a filter by review scores, stuff like that. We’d like to give people more tools to personalize their experience. That’s one of the things i’m the most excited about. And I think our readers will be excited about that too.

You can follow Joy and Matt on Twitter.

Maxime Loisel

I'm French and I love digital media (a lot). Currently Mobile Product Manager at Le Figaro. Graduate in Media Management (Sciences Po Rennes) & UX Design (Gobelins Paris).

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