Originally published on Newstogram.com blog on March 24, 2011
I travel a lot. I’m in a lot of airports (some good, some bad). So flying analogies usually work for me. But a recent trip that ended at Miami’s beautifully redone American Airlines terminal made me realize why one analogy I hear too often is misguided.
You’ve probably heard someone say, “We’re trying to rebuild the airplane while we’re flying it.” Sound familiar? It’s usually uttered when you need to justify why all work has to stop on anything except today’s mega-project.
In the media industry, we often hear about the big redesign or the CMS replacement or the new subscription system, or all three at once, keeping everyone busy. Having working on all of those kinds of projects, I understand why focus is critical. But are we really rebuilding an airplane in flight?
Having watched the transformation of MIA over the past three years, it struck me that the transformation of online media isn’t analogous to trying to fly and rebuild airliners simultaneously, but it can be analogous to how you can rebuild a terminal while still handling millions of passengers a month.
The key is to have a long-term vision and design and then to build incrementally, opening new sections as they are completed, closing old areas to tear them down and replace them. Adding features as you go while still moving in one unified direction toward a well-conceived design.
Airports seldom get to start from the ground up. I can think of only the new Denver airport that got built entirely from scratch. We all recall the fiasco of its shiny new technology failing in the early days and know the hassles of traveling so far out of town, so perhaps building from scratch isn’t a great solution, even if you can. While at WSJ.com, we did a nearly complete rebuild, and most of us wished we hadn’t by the time the two-year project was finished.
Rebuilding an active terminal (or online news site) requires careful planning and attention, but it doesn’t require that you buckle all the passengers in for a turbulent ride. If you know where you are going, you can add features as you go, giving passengers comfort that things are improving and making them willing to “pardon the dust.”
While I’m on airport analogies, let me mention a couple of others that struck me:
New features take some time to gain adoption. MIA added a great new rail system to ferry passengers along its lengthy concourse. At first, many passengers kept walking right past the train stops, but slowly I’m noticing more using the train, especially when they need to go more than one stop.
Why not fix obvious user interface mistakes? I’d like to know what grade in the Texas education system they teach the alphabet goes D, B, A, C, E. If you get on the train at DFW, that’s the order of terminals. Don’t be confused into thinking terminal C is close to terminal D. It’s as far away as you can get.