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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Dec. 3, 2013, 10:15 a.m.

Jeff Israely: Redesigns are an ongoing process, not a single launch moment

Our startup correspondent, building Worldcrunch in Paris, says overly ambitious designs can cause a problem: “You start to produce the content to serve the container.”

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, has launched a news startup called Worldcrunch. For the past three years, he’s been describing and commenting on the process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.

I’d been holding off on writing about the redesign of our website until it was all finished. Of course, the first and last lesson of the process is that your redesign won’t ever be done. It’s not just the always-in-beta credo; it’s also the less glamorous bugs and surprise hiccups across infinite browsers, devices, screen sizes — and coming down to the wire, that great idea you must finally put aside. The little compromises destined to be pushed live — but then again…

By now, though, we’re done waiting for it to be done. Call it Worldcrunch 1.9874, damn proud to show it off, with ice creams all around, to our extra-talented crew from Zagreb: designer Dario Krznar, our CTO Ivan Majstorovic, and Garrett Goodman, our now-London-based dude-of-all-trades who coordinated the project.

How could we have waited so long? is the overriding sensation we have, which is also a reminder of all the reasons not to redesign your site. For two years, we were quite satisfied with our face unto the world. The design was clean and smart and adapted to both the quality and quantity of the journalism we were producing. It’s not that we didn’t notice all the new bells, whistles, and more fundamental innovations sprouting around us. But for a lean news startup, a website redesign usually seems like a luxury you can’t afford.

In fact, as with other things, the decision snuck up on us. There had been no ongoing debate between my business partner Irene and me, nor any real pressing demand from readers or investors. The priority over the previous year on the design and development front had been to build for mobile (web and apps), which for us was a major accomplishment in itself.

Indeed, in retrospect, if we had been both wiser and richer, we would have followed Dario’s advice and redesigned the whole damn thing together back then. (More on that below.) But the path is the path, and hindsight is 20/20 on the Internet too.

This latest twist in the path started with me waking up one morning and mumbling in my head: A map, A MAP! I’d been thinking for a while that we needed to do a better job showing how far and wide all of our coverage reached, and let our readers explore in a more fun and interactive way. Creating a map entry-point to our stories, in itself, was going to be a big addition. We talked to Dario, who explained how it could be integrated with our existing site, but also noted (again) that it would be a good opportunity for a full overhaul. Irene and I sat on it for a few days, discussed what it could allow us to do on the editorial and business fronts, weighed the cost and the time required. Then, on a subsequent call with Dario to discuss the map, Irene — who ultimately has the last word on anything that involves writing a check — said the words: “We need a new design.” That was that.

You don’t redesign just for the sake of redesigning. You’re not a car owner tired of your old model and itching for a trade-in. You’re more a taxi driver deciding if it’s time to buy a new cab. Can an upgrade to a minivan help you cash in on airport fares? Do rising fuel prices mean it’s time to ditch the gas guzzler? It is, in other words, a business decision. From the editorial side, we were doing more content in different ways that our old site could no longer adequately accommodate. On the marketing side, we were moving into the paid/premium space and needed to show partners, customers, distributors, and paying customers that we have a big league product.

So with the question of if answered, it was time for the what. One of my favorite expressions to throw around when I’m pretending to be tech savvy is UX: user experience. I learned it fairly early (for me) and understood it rather well (for me). But I still wince a bit when a truly tech savvy person tells me “I use your site.” To an old-school editor, probably to an art director too, it sounds a bit off. The editor imagines that people are reading? Sure — well, sometimes, at least. The art director wonders what people are seeing in the product? But people do plenty of other things on your site: Browse. Click. Scroll. Leave. (Forget.) Rediscover. Re-enter. Browse again. Click. Glance. Look closer. Read. Keep reading. Share. Follow. Leave. Come back. Sign up. Explore. Click. Read. Pay. Share. Stay awhile. Yes, please use us, and use us well!

To try to make that happen, the possibilities were endless and targets were moving. Still, some basic goals seemed pretty clear: We had to think at least as hard about the article page as the homepage; our design had to be responsive to properly shine on all those devices and screen sizes; the site needed an overall new look and feel that felt fresh but not too far from the identity we had worked hard to establish.

I won’t go into detail about the choices we made, but the homepage layout is built around cards. We also wanted to be able to group stories together in dossiers or instant special reports, and have the article page extend below with infinite scroll of additional story cards.

The maps that got all of this started would be a signpost and a central part of the personality and branding of our site, but we’d allow readers to ignore them if they’re not interested. This was perhaps the most ambitious part of the design, and we’re still working to refine and expand what we can do with it. The responsive design extended to the browser for tablets, but we decided against adapting it for phones and apps, as our HTML5 mobile app was barely a year old. This was one of the compromises that we felt we had to make.

In the post-Snow Fall world, the temptation can be to design something that blows people’s minds. The risk, particularly for a small company like ours, is that it can swallow you whole. You start to produce the content to serve the container. Ideally, instead, the design should work in symbiosis with the journalism: Your site must be one you can feed every day with the stories that you’re meant to cover, while still having the elasticity to allow you (and push you!) to do new things and grow.

There’s no doubt that thinking about web design forces you to think harder about web journalism. I saw this BuzzFeed piece a couple of weeks ago, which was another example of how the ABC’s of good journalism and storytelling can find brand new life online. No GIFs, no lists, no kittens, nothing like the investment required for Snow Fall: Instead, it’s a direct but different way to cover a war with great reporting, finely crafted words, and powerful photography.

Still, at the same time I could also see the struggle with this new form, integrating the visual and text into a seamless scrolling narrative. There was the overriding goal of telling the story, but also the need to describe details in the photos that were distinct from the narrative. How does the main text cohabitate with the captions? One set of passages was slightly larger than the other, but sometimes it wasn’t clear what was what. It’s a design challenge. (Could a hover for the captions work? Or a different shade of text?) But there are also potential editorial solutions. (Weave the details from the photos into the main narrative?) Or a bit of both.

We began our redesign with another one of those web startup calls to arms: to make our new website future-proof. That’s a false concept. Finding design solutions that are replicable for different kinds of content means a better experience for the user, and less work for all down the line. But constant tweaks and occasional overhauls are inevitable, as the interaction between web publisher and web user — like the news itself — continues to change every day. Journalists, in other words, must make thinking about UX part of their daily M.O.

Photo by Robyn Lee used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 3, 2013, 10:15 a.m.
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