In 2017, we will radically rethink our designs, and what they say, what they assume, and how they might better serve our audiences.
Let’s start with the headline. For example: Could an initial headline reflect visually that the story is evolving and contains incomplete information? Maybe a first report headline could look like this, with an empty outline?
And then change in appearance to something like this, semi-filled, when we learn more information?
And then change a third time when the story is complete?
In other words, how can we encode as much useful information as possible in a headline? Colors, fonts, shading, size, position, pictures, interactivity, history, metadata — basically all the design elements of information encoding across multiple dimensions. Which of those are most helpful to enhancing the headline? How can we test them?
For example, could we think of a headline as something that one can hover over, and immediately see source material? Or how many times the headline has changed? Or how other publications have written the same headline? (How does that help readers? How could that help publications?)
Let’s go broader. Why are headlines text? Could they be something else? What is the most important element at the top of a page? Is it five to fourteen words or is it something else entirely?
Could we have multiple headlines for the same piece? Maybe write one that reports verbatim what happened. Then one that interprets, particularly if what happens verbatim isn’t actually true. Then maybe one that sees what happens from a different point of view. Then one that uses a quote. Then one that uses numbers. Publish all of them alongside a story. (Other interesting existing examples: L.A. Times sharelines, WaPo’s Bandito, Bloomberg’s perpetual re-headlining and headline A/B testing, Optimizely and ChartBeat‘s headline A/B testing solutions, Naytev‘s social media multiple headline testing solution.) Are more dynamic, detailed, and numerous headlines on single articles effective ways for news organizations to distinguish themselves from generic fake news sites?
Could a headline be a comment? Could it be a visualization? What material does a reader need at the top of a page? Is it text? A push notification? Let’s pause there for a second. With newly designed headlines, translations to a push notification could get murky. Things like mouse-hover functionality won’t be accessible by mobile users.
We then have a constrained creativity problem, where constraints are embedded in various operating systems. It also suggests that headline writing may now span multiple jobs. Or maybe those all fall under one job, and it just means “headline writing” is now a bigger part of an editor’s job. And the skill set required is different.
Back to constraints within platforms limiting our creativity. Do we only think of mainly-text-based solutions because of the current nature of the platforms we share on? What if that changes? How could that change? A lot of current restrictions around headlines come from social and search restrictions and it would be interesting to think about that impact and how publications might bypass them with headline-like constructs (like Mic’s multimedia notifications or BuzzFeed’s emoji notifications.) They’re take the headline space and reworking it using images. What could we use besides images? In addition to images?
Let’s think about this in terms of ads. Look at Facebook Ads. They localize headlines. Should news headlines be localized? What does that feel like?
What other kinds of information could be contained in the space that we currently call “headline”?
How might this help readers?
Now let’s repeat this experiment for first paragraphs, bylines, right rails, left rails, comment sections, landing pages, mastheads, verticals, investigative stories, push notifications, style section stories, homepages, metadata, what you measure, how you measure, and every other bit on your site. 2017 means rethinking every aspect of our designs: what they say, what they assume, and how they might better serve our audiences.
Thank you to Matt Crespi and Aram Zucker-Scharff for thinking through some of these ideas with me.