What UX Can Learn from Print

March 10th, 2015
Published on
March 10th, 2015

During the 2014 World Cup, the UK-based Club Penguin magazine released a themed issue featuring codes for unlockable in-game soccer gear, sports-related articles, and World Cup-related puzzles. Fans loved the engaging, community-centric content, and sales reflected their interest. Magazines that tell a cohesive story from cover to cover, like Club Penguin Magazine, are examples of UX design at its finest—where design creates a memorable experience that users love, and nothing feels out of place.

Good UX design involves more than just creating a usable product. It involves planning, creativity, analytics, and more – and the best UX design supports a rich story. Print magazines have long created stories and provided useful content for a vast audience, wrapped up in a brilliant design that’s both attractive and easy to use. The user-centered design thinking behind print magazines is just as relevant in today’s digital era as it was 350 years ago.

In this article, we’ll use Club Penguin, a massively multiplayer online, or MMO, game as an example as we explore the UX principles and practices of print magazines and how they can be applied to online content strategy, community building efforts, and web analytics processes to create more engaging, and profitable online experiences.

At Club Penguin, UX design begins by identifying the story being told. As Club Penguin’s Editorial Manager, Emma Bullen is an experienced storyteller and a passionate UX enthusiast—but her expertise and words of wisdom are gems for any UX professional wanting to create engaging online experiences. Bullen and her team of professional storytellers are masters of user experience, and by adapting the principles of print magazine design to the digital era, they’ve created a wildly popular online community that children love. Today, Club Penguin is one of Kelowna’s largest employers, and their famous success story has fueled the explosive growth of the local tech industry.

Storytelling: Creating a Rich Narrative

Forming a narrative is a valuable tool for guiding users, keeping their interest, and persuading them to take action. In print design and magazines, storytelling is requisite. In fact, Polish newspaper designer Jacek Utko (whose work has doubled the circulation of certain Bulgarian newspapers) likens print design to making music and says that designers who ignore storytelling in the print design process are killing newspapers.

Storytelling is key to newspapers.

What’s more, neuroscientific research is showing that stories actually change brain chemistry. Dr. Paul Zak is an economist and a proponent of neuroeconomics – a field that investigates how brain processes impact economic behavior. In one study, Dr. Zak found that participants who heard an emotionally charged story exhibited higher levels of cortisol and oxytocin than participants who heard an emotionally neutral story. This change caused participants to make larger charitable donations than the control group.

What does this mean for UX professionals? Telling stories can result in more persuasive communication.

“One of my favorite stories that we’ve told at Club Penguin was Operation: Blackout. It started out as our audience picking up on something that happened within the product. The kids were obsessed with the idea that a villain, named Herbert, was going to conquer the island. So we built that into our stories. Our marketing team did some great lead-up and we used a new website and our social media and videos to seed the idea.”
-Emma Bullen, Club Penguin

The audience was so absorbed in the story that they’d pause the promo videos part-way through to make note of what was happening in the background and what the secondary characters were doing. The Club Penguin team then created an interactive in-world event. Players became part of an Elite Penguin Force who stormed Herbert’s fortress and foiled his nefarious plot. In the end, the audience was very satisfied – there was a fantastic lead-up that created a rich, audience-centric narrative. The children prevented Herbert from destroying the island, and at the conclusion of that narrative arc, they felt a sense of victory.

It’s this kind of storytelling that audiences find persuasive—and the proof is in the numbers. On November 24, 2012, at the height of Operation: Blackout, 1.8 million children logged onto Club Penguin. This is the highest number of players to ever be on Club Penguin at the same time. Operation: Blackout was also the first Club Penguin event to be announced over a year before it was set to occur.

Community Building: Immersive Experiences Foster Strong Ties

Building an audience of dedicated followers is another area where UX professionals can learn from print magazines’ decades of experience. Magazines build communities of followers, or else they lose subscribers, advertisers, and revenue.

Building an immersive experience is key to building a community, especially in the magazine world. The most successful magazines create immersive experiences by incorporating themes, which encourage readers to view the magazine as one complete story as opposed to a collection of articles. ESPN Magazine and Reader’s Digest were both losing subscribers in 2013. ESPN Magazine lost about 4,000 subscribers (0.2% of its readership) and $145,000 in revenue, while Reader’s Digest lost about 330,000 readers (6% of its readership) and $3.3 million in revenue during 2013, then another 35% of its reader base between 2013 and 2014.

Building an immersive experience is key to building a community.

In 2014, ESPN implemented themed issues, and since has slowed its loss of subscribers. To date, Reader’s Digest has done only one themed issue—its “Genius” issue in September 2014. Although we can’t definitely prove causation via correlation, we can see that Reader’s Digest continues to lose subscribers—and has filed for bankruptcy twice since 2009. Chad Millman, Editor in Chief of ESPN Magazine, believes that themed issues not only boosted ESPN’s revenue and readership, but also created a better user experience. Millman’s approach appears to be working—in 2013, ESPN Magazine was the 25th most read consumer magazine in the United States.

An online community is the online equivalent of a themed magazine: a way of creating an immersive user experience. But community building is a big job. In order to build a successful community, it’s important to create an experience that appeals to the audience. At Club Penguin, that means doing fair and impartial user testing that is tailored to a specific audience. The key to testing is to allow the user—in this case the child—to move freely through the experience and see what content interests them.

In December 2014, for instance, Club Penguin used its website and social media profiles to promote a campaign called Coins For Change. This global citizenship event is an annual charity program where players donate virtual coins they’ve earned in-game to determine how $1 million of Disney’s money will be distributed between three charitable causes. This community-building exercise encourages children to play together, cooperate to gather virtual coins, and become responsible global citizens. The project has raised $12 million since 2007, and Club Penguin’s users have also donated tens of thousands of toys to impoverished children. These charity events are great examples of what can happen when a tight knit community works together toward one common goal.

Tracking Analytics: The Numbers Don’t Lie

UX professionals and content strategists of all sorts need a solid means of tracking and evaluating audience engagement – and applying lessons learned from analytics data. Though print magazines may not have Google Analytics, they have plenty of metrics. Magazines track their subscriptions and advertising revenue. The metrics help them become intimately familiar with their audiences, which means magazine editors and advertising managers know what kinds of content they can and cannot run.

Magazines, upon first starting up, will often survey their target readership to discover what kinds of stories readers are interested in. Neil Perlman, the CEO of Entrepreneur Magazine, says that testing with focus groups is critical.

“After you’ve decided what your magazine is going to look like and you’ve developed a prototype, after you understand the niche you’re serving and who your competition is, and after you’ve developed a unique mission statement…(that’s when you should) get consumers’ opinions by holding a series of focus groups.” -Neil Perlman, Entrepreneur Magazine

For UX professionals who work online, tracking engagement and running analytics is easy. With offline campaigns, it’s a bit more difficult – especially when resources and readership are limited.

One trick that some analytics professionals use is the custom landing page. Analytics professionals can establish a custom online landing page for offline campaigns. For instance, if a print ad campaign is advertising a major retailer’s electronic goods, that retailer can set up an online landing page promoting electronics products. The print campaign would offer a direct link or QR code to the page. By linking offline and online marketing, it’s possible to measure how well offline readers are engaging.

Analytics help measure results.

Bullen points out that engaging with people offline is a two-way street – before UX professionals can expect the audience to take any kind of measurable action, we need something to offer them. For example, the quizzes in print magazines create an engaging experience. They make the magazine’s content relevant and applicable to the reader, asking for the reader’s input and interaction. They also promise to reveal something of value to the reader or even challenge the reader’s self-concept—and at the end of a Club Penguin quiz, says Bullen, “you feel like you’ve learned something about yourself”—creating a sort of Hero’s Journey.

In short, when enticing users to interact, it’s important to offer something of value up front.

Next Steps

UX and UI professionals who want to supercharge their approach by using magazine industry tactics can take a variety of practical first steps to create magazine-like user experiences:

  • Tailor the experience to the audience. This means having a clearly defined audience in mind. The audience should be so well defined that their characteristics could describe an individual. Tailoring UX design to a specific audience results in a more fulfilling user experience for the core base of users.
  • Place more emphasis on “The Story.” Neuroscience shows that stories can trigger emotional responses, which can’t be said for traditional marketing messages. Magazine editorial is all about stories, and for good reason. Good storytelling captivates, entertains, and persuades – it keeps users coming back for more. UX professionals would benefit from telling more stories in both marketing and design processes.
  • Develop methods for tracking advertising campaigns. Understanding readership demographics is key to campaign tracking. Having solid data enables testing, which can boost response rates. To get this data, it’s important to have a free offer and a reliable offline tracking method – like a custom landing page.