Cara Determan, Director of User Experience, Consumer Reports

Cara Determan, Director of User Experience, Consumer Reports

It’s a brand that many of us grew up with, pages sprawled open on the kitchen table or stockpiled in the garage. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has been a mainstay of savvy consumer decision-making for more than 80 years. In the minds of millions of subscribers, the brand has long been synonymous with unbiased testing, research and consumer advocacy.

Over the decades, Consumer Reports has worked to reach new audiences, and bring the magazine experience online. And they’ve found success in their efforts. They were one of the first to charge for content and do it well. With their broad media portfolio spanning online, print and TV, they’ve steadily shifted from more transactional-oriented ratings engagements to experiences that hold you over time.

Cara Determan, Director of User Experience at Consumer Reports, has helped lead that change. Together with her team, Cara has helped to evolve the Consumer Reports experience into what it is today. Cara joins us to talk about CR’s recent redesign, membership and the journey to align everyone around reimagined experiences.


Eager to connect with fellow design leaders? Join us at Design Leadership Days.

Carl Smith: Hey everybody. Welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and swinging by the Bureau Studios today, we have somebody who has done a very rare thing in this industry. She has been with the same organization for 16 years. What's amazing to me about this is she actually joined the company she's with before I launched my agency that I closed recently. So, I'm just like blown away. Now, the thing is, she grew up with this company, starting off in 2002 with what I would imagine is kind of the beginnings of their web presence, their web team, all the way up to today where she's the Director of User Experience with Consumer Reports. Welcome to the show, Cara Determan. How are you?

Cara Determan: I am so great. Thanks so much, Carl. Wonderful to be here. 

Carl Smith: Ah, you're welcome. I'm so glad you're here. We've known each other for a couple of years now, met at the first Design Leadership Camp, saw each other again last year. One of the things that I've always been just kind of puzzled about is what it's like at Consumer Reports because it's such a great brand? It's a brand that I feel like I grew up with, and I remember if I saw Consumer Reports Magazine, like when I was a kid or whatever, I was like, I wanted to see who wasn't doing good, you know.

Cara Determan: Totally.

Carl Smith: I wanted to see the good stuff in the back. There's this total rating system. It was comments before there were comments. It was Yelp before there was Yelp, right. Tell me about what it was like joining Consumer Reports at the beginning.

Cara Determan: Well, I have to admit as I was coming in the door for Consumer Reports, you know, I was stepping off of being at another huge kind of Internet company, and I didn't really know what I was in for. They were searching for a freelance designer, a digital designer, and I didn't even know the name of the company. I just read something about how passionate they were as an organization and I knew that it was totally aligned with what it was that I would love doing. So, I applied and I got in. I came in as a consultant.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Cara Determan: I really just started to get to know what Consumer Reports really was about. I mean, I wasn't one of those people whose mom and dad had a Consumer Reports on their coffee table or in their garage. There's lots of folks who had piles and piles of those magazines in their garage. I just started to learn more and more about the organization as I started to do projects for them, and it was so endearing how passionate all of the testers were, how wonderful all of the folks who write for the magazine and do the work on a regular basis, what it was that they were really trying to do to change consumers' lives. I really started there. Most of the people who were at Consumer Reports at the time were print designers who had kind of learned a little bit of the web and I was not a print designer. I came straightaway right into digital, the digital world and learned all of that. Coming in, it was a little foreign trying to figure out how to ... I felt like I was speaking a different language sometimes with the folks who were looking at things from a print perspective. 

Consumer Reports was rather successful even when I jumped in. Even from the beginning, we were one of the very first content providers out there who had a paywall and were charging for content and were successful at doing that. I really had the luck of being able to be a part of that as it was growing. I went from freelance consultant to designer to senior designer to really kind of pulling together the team that was there already and then basically organizing my own team and really pulling in all of the great user experience talent that we could and hoping to start to really help consumer reports look at their content from a non-print perspective, which was a challenge. 

The company was really focused on how to put the magazine out on a regular basis and what it was that was driving all of this information onto the site was it wasn't re-imagined for digital. It really was kind of a replica of the magazine and there's still, even now, so much opportunity as far as what the experience online and digitally can be as opposed to what a print experience is. That has been really like the gem of it all and trying to really burst out of what has been the history of where this place has come from into what it really could be, you know, where it really is going to make a difference, which is different than it was say 15 years ago. There's a different spot for us now.

Carl Smith: It's interesting because, for me, my parents were the parents that had it on the coffee table, not in the garage. I remember as a kid thinking, there are answers in here. Everything that you see ... Because your parents always tell you, well, be careful where you spend your money because you don't want to buy something that's just not any good. Sea monkeys may be an example. I don't know. I don't think Consumer Reports ever rated sea monkeys. 

Cara Determan: I don't think they did.

Carl Smith: We can go back and look at that. I think the first time I actually became a customer would have been probably around the time, it might have been a little bit before, but the first time I became a customer was probably around the time when you joined because I remember it was online.

Cara Determan: Yeah.

Carl Smith: It was when I was starting to buy appliances.

Cara Determan: Right.

Carl Smith: Right. When I was just out of college and I needed a washer and dryer. I needed a refrigerator or whatever it might be. What I remember is I would go in there and I would look because, again, there wasn't any competition really. Then later, I don't know, maybe in my thirties at some point I canceled. I probably was a little tight on cash and there was also all these other things out there. The thing is, I still get those reminders. I get the emails and I don't unsubscribe because it's kind of like a friend. I feel bad if I were ... I actually resubscribed later and then unsubscribed again. I wondered, do you have any idea, is there a go-away-come-back kind of mentality that happens with Consumer Reports customers?

Cara Determan: Oh, absolutely. I think that actually is one of the things that was really a super focus of recent years, trying to really understand how we could transform from a transactional-oriented company where basically I need a dishwasher and I want to buy a dishwasher and I'm going to see the ratings for a dishwasher and then I'm going to go away.

Carl Smith: Yeah, yeah.

Cara Determan: Or between an experience and that hold-you-over time, right. We have been very, very transactional and people absolutely purchase in those kind of moments, but a part of what we've been trying to do recently is more about thinking about engagement over time, affinity and all of those things that would bring users back on a more continual basis as opposed to just in that moment of purchase.

Carl Smith: Yeah. I think that's absolutely, I mean, not that you aren't a company full of really smart people, but I'm just going to go ahead and tell you I think that's the right thing to do because I'm sure you can go back and tell them, well, Carl said we're doing it right. We're so excited. For me, thinking about what you just said, you know it's, one of the issues you have when you go out there to review something is who's the source and even if it's CNET, right, or it's another. I go there for electronics all the time, but even then you're kind of like, did they really spend the time? Is there anybody influencing them? Consumer Reports always felt like that super stand-alone. You wanted to be a part of that group. I know that I'm going to say it was within the last year, year and a half that you went through a rebrand and also kind or repositioned the way that the company interacts with its customers. Talk about that experience. How hard is it for an established brand like Consumer Reports to say, we might need to update ourselves a little bit?

Cara Determan: Oh, well. It was painfully apparent. I mean, as you were saying, there's fierce competition out there and all of the sudden there started to be focus, companies, that were doing the same thing that we were doing or it would appear that they were doing the same thing that we were doing. It would look like they were doing it better because they would be doing a better job of presenting it and the experience, and then they would also be doing it for free. So, they wouldn't have to actually pay for it. So, unlike yourself who had already kind of known a little bit about the brand, and it's really where we're super, super fortunate that we have a lot of still great affinity for who CR is and what they stand for, but a lot of the newer audiences really couldn't necessarily tell the difference between say, what CNET or others were doing and how it was that they would be pulling out money out of their pocket to get the ratings that CR did. 

It was super, super important that we really started to think about how was it that we were going to be attracting new audiences? How were we going to be positioning ourselves so that we would be relevant. Another challenge was that product shopping is one of those things that may not necessarily have as much pain as it used to be, especially when the company started. So, really thinking about what are the biggest consumer issues of today? Is it privacy? Is it food safety? What are the things that really are going to make a difference in a user's life in addition to all the product safety and reviews that we do. How can we evolved as an organization and I would say that it was really under a new leadership change several years ago when we were able to completely align in what it was that Consumer Reports really needed to transform into. How can we align what it that we're doing with our mission and our investigative reporting as well as our reviews so that we can really hone in on the new audiences that are going to make a difference? That's when there was a lot of discussion around how can we reinvigorate this brand? A part of that was what we have looked like. How can we change what we look like to be more accessible as well as how we sound and then also in what we create as an experience overall. 

Again, going back to the not being necessarily so transactional and in the moment, but what would it look like if we were to actually create a membership experience and how would that need to really change the way that somebody interacts with us over time? 

Carl Smith: Yeah. Help me out because personally it's always one of these challenges to understand the difference between subscription or membership. What's the big difference in this evolution?

Cara Determan: That's a great question. I mean, I absolutely think about the subscription as kind of the transaction. This idea of membership is really having an affinity for the brand that you belong to. There are many people actually already felt like a member. We had a donor part to our company, so we had fundraising as well as many other aspects of outreach and advocacy. So, there were a lot of layers to what it was Consumer Reports did, but they were kind of acting almost in different silos. It was about really understanding kind of the end-to-end journey of a user through the experience of being a part of Consumer Reports and how we could connect the different touchpoints in all of these different facets of how they could become engaged with us. It's engagement, it's affinity, it's understanding all of those ways in which you really feel for a brand. It's kind of the heart, I think.

Carl Smith: Yeah. How did the two evolve together, the rebrand and membership?

Cara Determan: It really all, it was a massive effort, kind of looking back at it all. It didn't happen for quite some ... It bubbled a lot, you know, before it even kind of started. The rebrand started ... I started working with ... We started doing a lot of internal soul searching on what it was with our current brand that was not necessarily resonating. Something interesting, the old rating system, it was red for good, black for bad, the icons, the Harvey Ball variation icons that we had and there was definitely a huge barrier to entry for new users because they needed to have a legend right next to them so that they could see what the icons meant. What we really wanted to be able to do was to create that approachability, that ease of understanding and that guided feeling, the lower barrier to being able to really engage with us. A part of what we really tried to start exploring was what would that look like? How could we do data visualizations that would help people understand things? How could we really expand the visual language of what we were able to do because the black and white was very limiting. 

That's where we partnered with Pentagram and Michael Beirut to work on a logo and the rating system. A lot of our ideas we had kind of brought to the table and they really helped to jumpstart a really wonderful conversation about what would this really need to look like in all of its renditions. We kind of started with a lot of the visual output even though we had already started building the concept of membership and what that would really need to look like. The visual output actually took the lead. It happened to be the first thing that we started to do and then, with membership, there were a ton of different parallel paths that had to happen in order for that to really work. I mean, there was a whole kind of inside-of-the-building effort of really trying to understand what does it mean from an organizational perspective to shift? How can we align everyone around the vision of membership or this idea of a rebrand. 

Like I had mentioned to you, some of our leaders, amazing President Marta Tellado who brought in Leonora Wiener who was head of brand and product at the time and really super, super supportive of what it means to evolve a brand. We had a lot of conversations about what does that mean and how can we speak the same language and bringing everyone along this journey, organizing the business around membership instead of subscriptions. What do the new KPIs look like? What are the engagement angles of that? If we have a three-tier, which we now have, as opposed to just a hard paywall. What are the ways in which we might bring people into our free tier and our many, many features that the teams played around with or looked into and there were features that then were chosen as the ones that felt like they were from CR. You know, they were ones that not necessarily anybody could have done. We really were focused on how to make that into something that felt like a bigger benefit for consumers.

Carl Smith: I'm curious. How did you communicate this with your existing subscription base that there was going to be this change? 

Cara Determan: Well, there were emails and there was communication that was sent out on a number of levels about all of the new changes. Interestingly, I think from ... So, I was talking to you about kind of the inside-of-the-building changes, you know, the outside-of-the-building changes regarding all of them. It was a ton of work to basically re-tier or re-put together all of the messaging that was going out to all of the consumers. Again, our marketing department had [inaudible 00:20:48] delays and was wonderful to really ... Again, it wasn't the donors or the digital product or the print product. It was really a full picture of what that engagement looks like and how can we make sure that over time we're really talking to the person as far as what we know about them and how we increase the personalization there. I would say that, interestingly, from an outsider perspective, I think other than gaining access to some new features and the possibility of maybe becoming a part of a premium tier there wasn't a huge change for them. You know, I think that even though inside of the building where we're doing this huge buildup, on the outside I feel like it was a little bit less noticeable. You know, there were new features, but it wasn't like we had totally redone the products that they had always known.

What we were really trying to do was smartly evolve that experience into something that they really wanted to come back to more and more in addition to making what they've always known better. 

Carl Smith: That makes perfect sense because if there's one thing I think we've all learned it's that people may complain about stuff, but then when you change it they complain more.

Cara Determan: Yeah.

Carl Smith: No, but I knew how it worked. I just didn't like how it worked and now you've gone and changed it and tried to make it better I've got to learn something. This is horrible.

Cara Determan: Yeah, I know.

Carl Smith: Why are you doing this? So, the response was pretty good? 

Cara Determan: Yeah. I mean, I think that the features that we currently launched, they're resonating. I mean, we have a car recall tracker where people can put in their cars and that has seen a huge response. I mean, so, again, some of these things are plays for what hopefully we'll be able to build out even more where it's not only kind of our research portal, but where you come back for ownership and other lifecycle kinds of purchases or questions, guidance opportunities.

Carl Smith: How does the organization itself, how does Consumer Reports feel about this transition? Has it reinvigorated the company? 

Cara Determan: I have to say it was one of the most amazing things to watch. Yes, it has. Again, it was all because of how the leadership was so aligned and how they wanted to make sure that everybody inside of the building was brought along because unless you have buy-in internally there's absolutely no way that you're going to be able to make that resonate externally. So, that was one of the most amazing things that I had ever experienced was when we launched the new brand and everybody was wearing green. When you think about it, it's a huge change.

Carl Smith: It is. 

Cara Determan: I mean, even though we had some moments in our past when we had different icons, it was a very bold new move and the organization internally was really brought along that journey and it was done in a way that I think everybody understood why we were doing it, understood that it was a way for us as an organization to have more impact with consumers and that is exactly what we have always wanted to do.

Carl Smith: That's so amazing. I really appreciate you sharing that story because seriously, for the last couple of years since I've met you I was like, what's going on in there. I appreciate you swinging by and letting us know. 

Cara Determan: No. No problem. Absolutely happy to do that. 

Carl Smith: Everybody listening, thank you for swinging by and we'll see you again next week. All the best. 

Image via Pentagram

The Bureau Briefing Is Brought to You By: