Kate Stewart of CBC: "Team health is the most fundamental thing you need in place for a team to work well and be productive."

Kate Stewart sees agile development as a key tool in getting cross-functional teams to successfully collaborate on digital customer experience projects.

She calls out the similarities between her career in user experience design and information architecture with her initial work in journalism, as both professions require strong teamwork. “UX design is really not a far stretch from journalism,” Stewart said. “Their basic goals are essentially the same: Tell the truth. Tell a compelling story. Make it accessible.” 

Stewart is currently a product manager for audience acquisition and engagement at the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster. She leads a cross-functional agile team focused on expanding CBC’s digital reach and increasing engagement across third-party platforms including Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, as well as CBC’s own email newsletters.

Massive Opportunities Bring Massive Responsibilities

After graduating with a degree in history from McGill University, Stewart went to journalism school at Ryerson University, having enjoyed working on the student paper at McGill.

Working briefly as a reporter in Montreal, Stewart then moved back to Toronto and became a writer for Sympatico, the consumer content portal run by Bell Canada. “It was my foot in the digital door,” she said. “From there, I worked in web agencies, and then as a UX consultant, mainly in higher ed.”

Landing at the CBC in December 2013 felt like “a dream come true,” as well as “journalism-adjacent,” since Stewart works closely with colleagues in news and sports on a daily basis.

“The CBC is such an institution in Canada,” she said. “There’s virtually nowhere in Canada where your work will be seen by more people. So having a hand in things like completely overhauling the CBC website presents a massive opportunity and a massive responsibility.” 

Stewart is a speaker at CMSWire’s DX Summit taking place Nov. 4 through 6 at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Chicago. She and two other enterprise digital leaders will be taking part in a panel discussion at the conference titled “How to Select DX Technology Using an Agile Approach,” on Nov. 6.

We chatted with Stewart for her thoughts on current and future key digital customer experience trends; the progress of a major project she’s leading for the CBC; and her best-practices advice on creating and sustaining cross-functional agile teams.

Center Personalization Initiatives Around Full Customer Transparency

CMSWire: What do you see as the most important trends in digital customer experience today, both within the media sector and across other industries, which organizations need to monitor closely?

Stewart: Does everyone answer ‘personalization’ to this question? Yes, personalization, of course. This is an extremely tricky area for media organizations to navigate. How do we actively fight against the creation of filter bubbles, while providing an experience that will properly engage each individual audience member?

Our goal is to protect the trust Canadians have in the CBC above all else. We’re structuring all our personalization initiatives around total transparency. We show our users every piece of data we’ve collected about them, and allow them to remove cookies and change their interests if we’ve got them wrong.

We also do personalization in ways that don’t involve collecting any personal data, for example, serving content recommendations based on the next-click behaviors of other users within a certain timeframe. 

CMSWire: What are some of your thoughts on how you see digital customer experiences potentially evolving in the future?

Stewart: One area I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, that may apply to different degrees depending on your business, is the concept of membership.

Our conversion funnel has users who subscribe to our OTT (over-the-top) platform, download our apps, and subscribe to newsletters at the bottom of the funnel. Those are really strong signals for loyalty and engagement.

We also have the ability for users to create CBC accounts — that lets them leave comments and manage their newsletter subscriptions. But what might be gained by going one step deeper, layering on a full membership program? What benefits might we be able to provide our audience?

You can imagine the ability to manage what stories and writers you’re following, how and when you receive alerts from us, robust profiles, sharing options and, of course, managing all the transactional things like paying for your OTT account.

We’re also digging deep into conversational interfaces. As a radio and television broadcaster, we’re well-positioned to provide rich audio (and video) experiences over smart speaker. And the growth in adoption has been strong in Canada too. It’s estimated that 18% of Canadians will be using one of these devices in 2020. 

CMSWire: What has been the most successful outcome from your migration project to move CBC’s more than 50 newsletters from one email service provider (ESP) to another, while gaining more in-house control?

Stewart: We’re still in the middle of the migration process, but here’s what I see happening: We’re moving from a set-up where we are very reliant on the customer support services of our current ESP — for everything from template builds to creating sign-up widgets — to a scenario where my team is fully in control of our newsletter program.

We have a great rapport with our new ESP, and we’ve certainly learned a lot from their people and from the migration process, but the biggest difference is the layer we’re building in-house that will allow us to manage our newsletter assets and data ourselves.

CMSWire: How is bringing core functionality in-house proving beneficial to your organization? In hindsight, what might you have done differently with respect to this newsletter migration project?

Stewart: Rather than relying on third-party forms for our subscription center and all the many sign-up widgets we have living across our site and on places like Apple News, we now have a way of centrally managing where they appear and what they look like.

And, not that I want to do this again anytime soon, but if we need to do another migration in the future, it will be so much easier under this new scenario.

Regrets? I’ll let you know the worst of it when we’re done, but certainly, if I could buy some extra time in the day, I would. It turns out that migrating 50 newsletters takes rather a long time.

I’d also create a very concrete plan for domain warming. Coordinating sending duplicate campaigns from two different ESPs, and gradually increasing the number sent on our new provider has been complex to say the least!

CMSWire: What kinds of qualities do you look for when building a cross-functional team? Why is this mix of individuals crucial to the project’s success? What should organizations put in place to encourage meaningful collaboration?

Stewart: In terms of roles, the majority of our cross-functional agile teams are made up of a product manager, an agile team lead (aka scrum master), a large or small group of developers, a UX lead and a QA lead.

Ideally, these people have complementary skill sets and attitudes, but they shouldn’t operate as a hive-mind. A diversity of opinions and approaches is always valuable.

One of the primary roles of the agile team lead is to monitor team health and work to constantly improve it. It’s been really successful for us to have someone consciously dedicated to the question of how the team is performing together on a daily basis.

Team health is the most fundamental thing you need in place for a team to work well and be productive. Even the most highly performing teams can bear some optimizing. 

CMSWire: Outside of work, which apps and social networks do you find the most helpful for collaborating with friends and families, and why? What hasn’t worked so well, and why do you think that was the case?

Stewart: Interesting question. Outside of work, I sit on the board for my daughter’s synchronized swimming club. When I joined the board, it — and the club as a whole — operated in a world of Word docs being emailed around with very little in the way of version control.

I turned them on to Google Drive and it was life-changing! Now, every document used by the club lives on shared drives, and the board creates new documents collaboratively.

That said, I also tried introducing them to Kanban, and got us all set up with a Trello board to track our action items from meeting to meeting. That was an utter failure.

After two seasons of no one but me logging in, and the Trello board being used as a to-do list, I gave up and retired it. It seems that was a step too far. Maybe I’ll try them on Slack next .... 

Learn more about the Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit.