The Audiobook Evolution
Role / Director of Design | Responsibilities / Leadership, strategy, people management
Since its inception, Blinkist has solved the problem of too much to read, too little time. The app helps busy people fit learning into their lives by transforming non-fiction books into key insights (‘Blinks’). Blinks enable people to enjoy a new title and expand their knowledge in as little as 15 minutes. Yet in 2019, Blinkist's founders announced one of the biggest strategic changes to the product since 2012: full length audiobooks.
Introducing non-fiction audiobooks had two core drivers:
1. Deepening learning
Increasing value for customers by allowing them to extend their learning journey on the platform (research indicated readers sometimes went on to purchase the full book)
2. A defensible moat
Creating an additional way to make the business more defensible against an ever increasing sea of competitors by finding another way differentiate the product
On the Design team (Product Design, Research and Visual Communications), we understood this was a strategic bet with open questions that we’d need to address. Audiobooks were a big change from Blinkist's core proposition of reading a book’s key insights in a short amount of time. This was also a space nobody had ever designed for, and as a company, we hadn’t operated in this space either.
Compounding the sense of complexity was the limited time for this project. The restriction on time, along with the large number of open questions, called for a higher level of agility and decisiveness in the face of ambiguity.
We decided that a good start to break some of that ambiguity down would be with a design sprint.
An Even-More-Compact Design Sprint
We ran a 3-day Design Sprint to help us consolidate open questions, develop a prototype and test an experience rapidly.
I co-created the agenda and facilitated the workshop. I led a cross-functional group through a process of understanding the problem, identifying risks, mapping the experience, developing ideas and prototyping.
The Research and Product Design teams tested the prototype and within days we had clear insights about the concept, people’s reaction to this new offering and critical areas. With this foundation we now had shared alignment about top-level user flows and areas to iterate/test again.
From here, work was split up and product squads tackled specific parts of this customer experience.
Audiobooks was an unknown space for us. We didn’t have foundational knowledge about customer needs, how/when people listened etc. The Research team developed a research plan, with myself and Director of Product, as collaborators.
The plan outlined several phases of the project process, including several studies to dig deeper into unknowns. These findings helped to highlight issues and potential opportunities.
With Research being part of the broader Design team, this set-up allowed for a tight integration with product designers, who were able to embed learnings into their work.
Design Phase & Testing
Existing processes like weekly design reviews, Slack channels for feedback and working sessions helped to ensure alignment and space for critique across Design. Since designers were embedded in product squads, these spaces were important to allow for collaboration and to produce a more holistic customer experience.
As well as foundational research lead by the Research team, usability testing and interviews were conducted throughout this process by designers. We also conducted a post-launch diary study to gather early qualitative insights from customers using the newly evolved Blinkist after launch.
Having identified a need to visually differentiate between different formats (book summaries, aka 'Blinks' and audiobooks), the Visual Communications team worked on establishing new art direction for the individual book summary covers in app. We'd made a previous attempt to move away from using stock photography to custom imagery but the timing was right with this project to invest in this update.
The audiobook feature was rolled out in March 2020 to our Apple and Android apps. The release also included the new covers, as well as new functionality to the web product (purchasing credits online).
This project was a large feat and not without bumps along the way. We were building the train whilst it was moving — venturing into a completely new space that fundamentally rocked the value proposition
of the product.
This was also a zero-to-one strategic bet with a tight deadline that resulted in both strategic and people challenges.
My belief through this project was the importance of transparency and creating the forums for individuals to share their thoughts or obstacles. This gave me a means to provide support in a few different ways.
For example, helping designers gain the tools to tackle manageable issues, coaching them on when to disagree and commit or sometimes simply being a listening ear and acknowledging issues.
Additionally, as part of senior leadership, I raised larger strategic questions with other senior leads to tackle problems on this level.
What we didn't predict — when we shipped this feature in March 2020 (😅)— was Covid-19 and its impact. Despite that, we were still able to observe some promising early signals.
For example, increased monthly renewal rates for the customers who bought audiobooks (compared to those who didn't) and a strong percentage of repeat audiobook buyers.