4 key pieces of audience engagement missing from Andy Rutledge’s news redux
This post isn’t going to make much sense unless you’ve read that - so go and do that first.
Excellent, then I’ll begin.
I thought Andy made some very good points. Personally I despise the overall clutter and noise of news sites, and there were some specific things I really agreed with him on. Notably:
- “If you do it right you publish once and it works anywhere.”
- “Mobile presentation of a news web page should be contextual to the device and screen size/resolution.”
- “Author, source, and date/time are important.”
- “Opinion or Op Eds are distinct from news.”
- “Search should be more usable than is currently employed on most news sites.”
However, there were 4 key areas where I very much disagree with Andy’s analysis, and think it would fail to engage with mainstream news readers.
News is about stories, and stories are about people. In Andy’s redux, aside from the “hero” image leading the page, the only people’s faces I can see are those of the journalists and columnists. This is a very 20th century view of the news, where the only people you heard from were those with the patronage of the owners of the presses.
Users want to see the people in the stories, not the people writing them.
News stories are compelling when they speak to our hopes, fears, doubts. When we see people expressing joy or sorrow or regret or triumph. Andy’s list of headlines is clean and efficient, but it lacks the emotional pull that images lend to news stories.
Users want brief summaries
As part of his news design redux, Andy praises layouts that consist of lists of links - citing MSNBC and CNN.
I think he has prioritised scanning the news over comprehending the news. It is very hard to convey an entire story in a headline. News is about context. Time after time in user testing I’ve seen users ask for, or prefer, the display of short story summaries underneath headlines. It gives them more confidence in their decision to click or not, and calms their anxiety about “missing out”.
In the Guardian CMS we specifically have a field “trail text” which we use for this summary/teaser purpose. It is compulsory, even for articles which do not have a conventional standfirst.
Navigation is more than links
I agree with Andy that the New York Times left-hand navigation is excessively long. However, I don’t buy the argument that navigation on a news site is purely about pushing the user around from carefully categorised vertical of content to carefully categorised vertical of content.
Global navigation on a news site is not so much about hyperlinks as a statement of intent and values. There is a reason the Daily Star has “Babes” and “Celebrity” on their main nav, and the Guardian has “Comment” and “Culture”. The navigation on a news site is crucial in setting tone and editorial expectations.
News is social
Andy removes the concept of “Top stories” from the New York Times design, stating that “popularity has nothing to do with news”.
With linear news delivery, like a radio or TV broadcast, you had to listen to the news in the order chosen by an editor. In an interactive environment, that isn’t the case, and nobody consumes everything in the way that a bulletin or newspaper can be “finished”.
“Most popular” lists allow the footprints of site usage to provide an alternative slice of the news. There is nothing wrong with reading two serious stories, and then clicking on the popular humorous one. “Most popular” subtly drives the user towards finishing their news session with the dead donkey - or more usually the married goat.
Andy argues that “news is not social media”.
News has always been social.
Whether it was the town crier barking notices at the community, the shared experience of watching the newsreel together in a darkened cinema, gathering around for the evening news on TV over teatime, or cutting a clipping out of a newspaper and posting it to a friend, news has always been about a shared understanding of the stories that shape our world and experiences.
“Most popular” lists, comment counts, and the ability to rate and share articles are all signposts that you are not reading the news in isolation, but are visiting a website which is being interacted with by a host of living breathing human beings.
The design challenge and the Guardian API
I do like the aesthetic of Andy’s redux - frankly you can tell by the theme I’ve picked for my own blog that I don’t like much else on the page apart from the article. I also really like, for example, the design of the Guardian’s Tumblr blog as a clutter-free highlights way to present some of our content.
But Andy’s redux pares back the information structure to resemble a slightly dolled-up RSS reader. There is a reason that RSS reading of news never gained mainstream adoption, it simply isn’t the way that most people want to be presented with information. Or as Mark Hurrell put it on Twitter: “Here be the tension between designing for efficiency & designing for storytelling/engagement.”
One of the great things about having the Open Platform API at the Guardian, though, is that it is relatively easy for developers to quickly prototype different viewing experiences and designs for our content. Phil Gyford’s “Today’s paper” attempts to recreate the daily newspaper reading experience, whilst Paul Haine’s web app presents an optimised version of the Guardian for iPad-sized screens. Dan Catt’s “Long good read”, meanwhile, presents a curated view of our best long-form content in a blog format.
So, if anyone wants to pick up the challenge and build a prototype of Andy’s redux from our content, I’d love to see it...and test it with users.