Posted by: structureofnews | May 20, 2011

Design Matters

Imagine getting an issue of your favorite magazine – Wired, say, or Vogue, or whatever – but instead of nicely laid-out pages on glossy paper you were given a stream of text with the odd photo inserted, printed out in uniform columns.  Not quite what you were expecting – and much less of a reading experience.   And much less of an incentive to pony up the price of a subscription.

That’s the point that Grig Davidovitz, a former Editor in Chief of Israel’s Haaretz websites and now newspaper consultant, makes about current news website design: It’s boring. Worse than that, it’s static.  Templated to within an inch of its life.

He’s got a point.  Newspapers (or magazines) are – or should be – well-designed products intended to showcase great content (stories, photos, graphics, etc) as well as the judgment of editors about what’s important.  Websites, on the other hand, are often templated layouts built to allow a stream of content to flow into predetermined boxes.

That’s an overstatement, of course; and sites do have the ability to rejigger their designs when big news breaks.  But as Grig notes, few website editors are given much authority to do that on a day-to-day basis, and the result is that front pages – and story pages – look pretty much the same all the time.   Indeed, even vastly different types of content – hard news and fashion, say – are often templated on the same kinds of layouts.  And he argues, better, more customized design, can bring readers in.

To be sure, Grig is selling something: A front-end to CMSs that will allow for easier customization of sites on a daily basis, so editors can choose to play a strong photo bigger or offer different layouts based on reader preferences. (A couple of examples here, here and here; the first shows more of a magazine layout for the site; and other two show ways to vary news presentation depending on news, including buttons that allow users to view it in straight blog style if they prefer.  Try clicking on the right-hand buttons.)And it’s not entirely clear that readers would come in droves to news sites if they were better presented – as it is, many come on via social media and search, so they’d never see the better front page anyway.  (Although Grig’s argument – and software – points to the need for better laid out story pages and section fronts within sites as well.)

Still, it’s a good idea to rethink the notion of websites as places where content flows, and put the focus much more clearly on the users and their experience.   The world is awash with content as it is; finding ways to make your content stand out and be more engaging is far more useful a task than simply pushing more of it out.

Ken Doctor, in a smart post interviewing Seth Godin on his six tips for news site publishers, includes this one:

In a world of plenty, really infinities of news, opinion and information, it’s not how much content you can push to the market, it’s how much reader attention you can earn and depend on… Innovative approaches to publishing — what you offer, how you offer, how you package, how you engage readers — can be the best medicine.

There’s already great packaging of news stories, of course – just look at the work at interactive narratives for examples of how some of the best do it.  To be sure, it’s a hard thing to do on a daily basis; and cost and productivity considerations are a key reason why websites are templated to begin with.

And over-designing a site can also get in the way of a simple reader experience – which is why offering multiple fronts may be a way around that.

(The Guardian‘s site had a great example of this on the day of the royal wedding – a simple toggle allowed “royalists” to get a front page replete with all the gory details of William and Kate’s nuptials; while “republicans” got to switch to a wedding-less site.  Nice.  Thanks to Yolanda Ma for getting me these two screen shots:)

For Royalists:

And for Republicans:

See the toggle on the right-hand side?  That’s segmenting by audience for you.

That’s a start – and as it gets easier to build more interactive components of sites, we should be able to focus more and more on how users are experiencing our content, rather than shoveling as much of it out there as we can.


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