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Designing a big news site is about more than beauty

Information designers still haven’t figured out how to present large amounts of information in a way that’s beautiful, encourages discovery, and leaves room for editorial control.
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It appears to be Pick On News Web Designers Day today. This comic — poking at news sites’ unwillingness to link, misuse of thumbnails, and addictions to share buttons, among other things — made the rounds of Twitter, to the point of crashing cartoonist Brad Colbow’s site.

But even more talked about, on Hacker News anyway, was web designer Andy Rutledge’s unrequested redesign of the website of The New York Times. He finds the current site too busy, too data-dense, and he suggests an alternative, here. (That’s specifically a section front for Politics; you can see the existing page on nytimes.com here.)

Rutledge’s design has a lot to recommend it: it’s clean, spacious, has nice typography, and feels high-end, the way something like the Times should to differentiate itself from the competition. (I’m focusing just on his design rather than his ideas about journalism, which are pretty wrong-headed and seem derived from some more-puritan-than-the-Puritans ideal — how free news is inherently bad, that the act of “featuring” some stories over others is a violation of news purity, “there is no ‘most popular’ news,” “almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial,” etc.)

But as nice-looking as it is, it also misses some of the point of what it means to design for the Times. The Times generates a ton of content every day. Looking at Times Wire, I see 169 stories published just in the past 18 hours — and I don’t believe that’s actually capturing everything that flows through the Times’ blogs and sundry other online spaces. And it’s a Tuesday! The challenge of a news organization that pumps out that much content is how to present it all in a way that maximizes its value, both journalistically and financially. There are many, many beautiful websites around the Internet that, as lovely as they are, would be awful as an entry point of a news site. (Similarly, stripping stories down to just headlines — no intro text, which Rutledge dislikes for some reason, no thumbnails — may maximize typographic beauty, but it doesn’t do much for enticing a click.)

This isn’t just a problem for the Times; it’s also a problem for the massive aggregators like HuffPo and Gawker. (Whatever one thinks of the controversial Gawker redesign, it is nonetheless an attempt to wrestle with this problem.) Rutledge’s design, on a commonly sized laptop screen (1440×990), would link to exactly three stories in the first screenful of content. The Times’ current Politics page links to 13.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Times Politics page is perfect. It’s actually kinda ugly, and confusing, and cramped. But, as ex-Timesman Michael Donohoe writes at Hacker News, it’s also based on a design that’s approaching six years old. (Here’s the front page of nytimes.com on April 2, 2006, when the current design was put into place. Look familiar?) That raises another of the major challenges news sites face: Because they produce so much content, every day, nonstop, major change is hard to pull off. That’s true with any extensive website, but it’s particularly true of a news website that takes its responsibilities to the historical record even a little bit seriously.

Think how much the Times’ digital output has changed since 2006, how many new targets those stories hit — an iPhone app, an iPad app, a Kindle edition, a mobile site. And each of those, I’d wager, meet more of Rutledge’s wishes: they’re cleaner, more spacious, more obvious nav targets. And the bits of nytimes.com that have gotten designed/redesigned since 2006 — DealBook, Opinion, T — all share that spirit.

(And if Rutledge really does want nothing more than a long stream of decontextualized headlines, may I suggest either Times Wire or Today’s Paper?)

The legitimate question is why hasn’t the front page of nytimes.com seen that same kind of love. I suspect the institutional inertia question is a big part of it. I suspect another is the Times’ strong print DNA, which privileges the editor’s judgment in story placement in ways that lead to echoing of complex, text-heavy print layouts that match the Times-on-paper.

But the other piece is that no one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.

Beautiful by itself isn’t that hard — there are lots of beautiful sites on the web, and lots of talented designers. When it comes to effective story discovery, the innovation has all been in the direction of algorithms and raw feeds. An algorithm is how Facebook surfaces items in your News Feed; a raw feed is how Twitter organizes tweets from the people you follow, in straight reverse chronological order. But neither of those is perfect for human editorial control, which is something news organizations rightly value; there are tons of visual and contextual cues on those complicated nytimes.com pages that tell me what Times editors think is more or less important for me to see. (And, in any event, most news organizations have nothing near the amount of data needed to create Facebook-style personalization. The Times, with its article recommendations, is about as close as it gets.)

I guess my overarching point is that, while there are no doubt lots of pages on nytimes.com or any other news site that could use a once-over, the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems. Smart people think about these problems. And their solutions require more than a nice slab-serif typeface and some white space.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/RHMFer Matt Williams

    Way down yonder here in Texas, we have http://www.culturemap.com in Houston and Austin.  An 18-month old local news start-up where the beauty of design hooks up with the beast of daily relevance.  Take 30 seconds out of your life to decide for yourself.

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  • Andre

    You’re right Rutledge didn’t do a redesign of digital news because it was requested, he did it on his own. He explored areas that he believed could be improved AND he was right!

    Now, in this article you are taking everything too literal saying one story on the home page might look pretty but isn’t practical. First, no one said that. Second, just because he suggest headlines only (which I would actually prefer too, it’s basically the same as a small intro) he didn’t say it was the ONLY solution. It was an idea to condense the articles and make it not so cluttered. Perhaps instead of hounding Rutledge, we could adapt and evolve from his solutions to something that would work better, because let’s face it, he’s right – it’s broken and hard to find anything.

    I’m not going to talk about every thing you commented on, but in regards of the Headline only (or do you still call it Hedeline in journalism?) it is a simple solution. Perhaps, if we expand our minds a little, we could instead have a headline PLUS (yes get this, plus…) a couple sentences or a deck head. Perhaps too, depending on the story, a small, cropped photo that may be relevant. 

    Anyway, I’m glad you weren’t as bad as some of the other articles completely ignoring any of the great points Rutledge suggested. But you are right and wrong. Right because, yes designers don’t know everything about newspapers so if someone was hired on to redesign a digital site, there could be input from the journalists, but wrong to assume… well pretty much your whole “overarching point”-last paragraph. 

    Oh and the amount of stories the NYT produces each day does not really matter, because if it’s a bad design or good design, it could still accomodate that load. If anything, a bad layout with that load of stories makes it worse.

  • Andre

    You’re failing to see it in the eyes of an end user though, not everyone are journalists that want every single story thrown on a table mixed around like a deck of playing cards. 

    Most end users will want a nice ” uber-clean, Instapaper-like experience” as you put it. 

    And perhaps that’s also just my assumption, so it should come down to having a major digital publisher to put up a poll on their site asking “Do you like super cluttered busy news or simple easy to find news, vote now.”

  • Anonymous

    There ARE sites that are easy to use that have just as much depth and complexity as nytimes.com. Craigslist comes to mind. So I don’t buy the argument that nytimes.com is so deep that it necessitates confusing visitors in order to give them access to that depth.

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  • Timothy Aron

    I love that after all the poo-pooing of the designer’s article (which was about news sites, not an unrequested redesign), your opinion boils down to “it’s really hard and smart people haven’t solved it, but when they do it will be different than this.”

    Nothing is offered here in terms of addressing the points Rutledge made. The NYT site is definitely noisy and overwhelming. It is not easy to scan headlines. Implying the amount of info news sites display and the difficulty of the problem prevent organization’s working towards better designs is a cop-out. Rutledge offered a visual example that helped point out the problem of noise and the difference between noise and cleanliness in design, in particular with news sites. The article makes it clear it is not a proposed redesign and implying so seems ignorant at best, purposely misleading at worse.

  • john harding

    Your article seems to focus on individual news items as discrete outputs, whereas Andy’s article (a really useful contribution to a much needed debate) is much more about brand image and reader loyalty.  Big difference.

    Seems to me Andy’s making a powerful point about the long term future of newspapers moving online.   The product is not just the information – never has been.  It’s the user’s experience, part of which is aesthetic, and part of which is effective management of news articles.  Design *is* a major part of the product/brand.  In which case NYT and other traditional sites are in major trouble.

    I don’t accept that busyness is a prerequisite of managing access to content; quite the reverse.  It’s a barrier.  And it smacks of an industry which is reluctantly having a web presence, rather than enthusiastically building a new, additional product line – probably the future of the industry.  The internet was made for newspapers, providing the technical capacity to escape the constraints of linear, physical page layouts and to provide new ways of managing articles, driven by reader preferences.

    Your article points out the NYT’s inertia, and its (potentially fatal) roots in physical print design.  Which is a shame, because NYT Reader was a valiant attempt at a new form-factor for newspapers – and it echoed all of Andy’s substantive points – well designed, fewer stories, technical solutions to article overload, etc.  

    Inertia and misplaced design though are all too prevalent on newspaper sites in general.  And it simply doesn’t work for me – and lots of others. That’s simply the challenge Andy sets out – and, for the future of the great titles, he’s doing the industry a service.

  • john harding

    Except Safeway doesn’t squeeze every single product it can in to its front door space; which is the equivalent of traditional newspaper sites throwing everything on to its home page.  In fact most stores leave a lot of space round the entrance – after all, they’re trying to get us in and keep us in as long as possible.  In Safeway, we know how to use aisles and sections to browse where we want.  Traditional newspaper site design doesn’t trust us to do the same thing.

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  • http://twitter.com/_bradhall Brad Hall

    Ironically, Google has commenced a complete overhaul of its apps suite, which looks uncannily similar to what Andy has proposed as a starting point for nytimes.com. I can’t think of a set of pages more data-rich than those, and the redesign is hugely beneficial to their usability. So it’s possible.

    Andy is not naive. But I can’t say the same about the organizations that continue to design like we’re in ’98. “The realities of a complex organization” is a crutch. It’s an excuse. If the user can’t find what he’s looking for, why do you exist? If he can’t find what he’s looking for, and he leaves, do your ‘realities’ matter anymore?

    Your page is usable or it isn’t. And it isn’t. It’s all about priorities, and usability should be #1. Andy’s point is well taken; the vast majority of online news portals don’t get it.

    http://blog.dustincurtis.com/the-state-of-print-on-the-web

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  • David Weintraub

    The Boston Globe’s resent redesign was pretty good. It’s clean, shows the stories, and it automatically resizes based upon browser size.

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  • http://twitter.com/danielcoats Daniel Coats

    I would just like to posit the simple idea that maybe people don’t want to see “a ton of content.” Rather, what we want is a spacious, clearly hierarchical layout, preferably tailored to the our choice of region and topic. And while we’re changing assumptions, let’s eschew the idea that people won’t scroll to see more content.