The ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ and Ryder Let Customers Lead the Way on Focus Groups

As the Peter Allen song goes, “Everything old is new again.” That certainly describes what’s happened at “The Philadelphia Inquirer.”

Founded almost 200 years ago as “The Pennsylvania Inquirer,” the paper, its site and mobile app underwent a redesign in late Sept. The deliverables include a new font, a bolder color palette and additional space for photography and interactive graphics.

Yet the redesign respects The Inquirer’s rich history as the country’s third-oldest daily. For example, the brand’s new font, Philadelphia Inquirer Clarendon (PIC), mixes modern and historic elements. In fact, some of PIC’s characteristics include elements from a font The Inquirer used in the 1860s through the 1920s.

In addition, the redesign does more than offer readers a richer experience that looks better and reads easier. It makes producing the paper easier and more efficient.

"We wanted to make sure any design changes improved our operations and efficiency," Sabrina Ram, The Inquirer’s VP of communications, tells us.

For example, designers and editors now work with industry-standard production equipment, such as Adobe InDesign. When a three-column story must shrink to two columns, a designer can literally drag it into the smaller space. Tools automatically adjust photos, graphics and other elements.

In addition, page layouts now reside in the cloud, easing scheduling and other administrative tasks. And the cloud provides redundancy should a disaster strike. Remote work for editors and writers is easier too.

As you can imagine, The Inquirer moved methodically on its redesign. “When you have a nearly 200-year-old paper…you don’t make decisions on something this big over the weekend,” Ram says. In fact, the process took roughly one year.

Moreover, since the redesign addressed several sets of stakeholders, The Inquirer was careful how it gathered insight and opinions.

Readers Lead

While the redesign’s internal goals were important, Ram insists “customers were at the center” of it. As such, The Inquirer created a focus group where readers participated in an online readability study that was run without a moderator. “It was a participant-led task without a researcher present, to avoid bias,” Ram says.

This quantitative portion of the focus group had people read stories out loud in the new font. Testing for fluency and comprehension, each person received a score based on how long it took them to read a story and how many details about the story they remembered.

Then, they were asked which of the two stories and fonts was easier to read. The fonts and stories were randomized across all participants, controlling for a potential order effect.

Another part of the study requested qualitative feedback about what participants thought when randomly presented with different fonts.

“This is an exemplary case where qualitative feedback reveals something that quantitative feedback does not, and, why often, both are necessary for research purposes,” Ram says.

More than 100 people participated in the readability study, which was conducted online across mobile devices and desktop computers. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 69. Roughly 58% were female and 42% male.


While The Inquirer engaged design firm Pentagram, study data provided useful input, Ram says. “We were more informed when we were working with Pentagram," she says.

In addition, after the redesign launched, an online survey is soliciting opinions from readers of particular sections (business, sports, etc.). They are asked about what they’ve noticed about The Inquirer’s new look. In addition, they’re asked about its new colors, readability, font and images.

Questions include those with open-ended answers as well as multiple choice questions, rating-scale questions and Likert Scale matrix questions. In just two weeks since the survey was fielded, more than 4,000 responses were received, Ram says. The survey will remain in the field for 30 days.

Another source of reader feedback is The Inquirer’s customer service department, which is logging comments about the redesign. In addition, The Inquirer’s editor Gabriel Escobar has asked readers to share their feedback with him directly.

Customers Lead

The next focus group example, from Ryder System Inc., might seem miles apart from what The Inquirer did. Indeed, Ryder, the trucking and logistics company, eschews the term focus group. Instead it calls its yearly information-gathering operation Customer Advisory Boards (CAB). It holds three CABs yearly (Food & Beverage, Enterprise and E-commerce)

Still, the approaches of The Inquirer and Ryder share an important quality: both are customer-led.

Begun in 2015, Ryder brings 25 customers to its headquarters annually for two days. Once there, Ryder holds discussions and group exercises focused on customers’ professional challenges and issues.

Sounds straightforward, though there’s much more to the CABs. For example, one of the keys to success occurs well before the on-site sessions. It begins with recruiting the 25, which takes months.

Ryder spends considerable resources finding leaders from its customer base best-suited for the CABs. Participants are VP level and higher, “so they have a more strategic outlook,” says Ryder CMO and EVP Karen Jones.

One-Hour Interviews

Ryder interviews each of the 25 customer-advisors invited to a CAB, Jones says. The 1:1 interviews are done via telephone and last one hour.

These interviews also create the agenda for the CAB visit, she adds. “When we hear a particular problem repeated” during the interviews, “we know we have an agenda item.”

Indeed, Ryder is vigilant about CABs being customer-driven. “Too many companies are tempted to cover what the company wants to discuss. They want to put their own agenda forward, which we always try not to do," Jones insists.

As such, Ryder ensures the floor is open during CAB sessions. One way it does this is by hiring  professional facilitators from Ignite Business Services.

Importantly, this lets a third-party regulate discussions, making sure enough voices are heard. And it helps create a frank discussion.  “The facilitator can say, ‘I don’t want to hear from Ryder people now. I want [CAB invitees] to speak,’” Jones says.

Break-Out Sessions

Another way Ryder makes the CABs customer-driven is through break-out sessions. Periodically, the 25 advisers are divided into groups of five and asked to solve a problem. For example, ‘What is preventing you from embracing electric vehicles?’ ‘How are you recruiting and retaining?’ There is a Ryder person in each group, but they don’t speak, Jones says.

After 20 minutes, the sub-groups assemble in one room and each discusses how it answered the questions. The exercise, Jones says, “gives Ryder a roadmap of what we need to do.”

Speaking of a what to do, Ryder purposely avoids formally discussing solutions during the CAB sessions. “During a cocktail party we might go up to a participant and mention a solution we have or are working on,” Jones says.

Solutions and Outcome

On a formal level, 30 days after a CAB, Ryder sends participants notes, which include discussions about what Ryder heard during the CAB and resulting action plans. “You have to let [CAB members] know that what they said is important and what we’re going to do to address their issues,” Jones says.

Roughly 9 months after a CAB, Ryder sends participants a progress report on issues raised and solutions that have been developed.

Ryder held virtual CABs during the pandemic, adjusting the sessions’ content as well as their length to offset Zoom fatigue. It recently resumed in-person CABs. “Technology is great, but it can’t replace in-person sessions,” Jones says. “You just don’t get the same level of engagement or interaction.”