The year of the user

“It is building exceptional editorial design sensibilities — and the character of our communities or content — into our products that will separate us from easy-to-install WordPress themes.”

Five years of chasing clicks has made browsing the news one of the worst user experiences on the Internet. Depending on the size of the homepage takeover, it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at a slot machine or a news website. Prestigious publications have pushdown video ads playing between the paragraphs of stories. In local markets, the same type of ad doesn’t have a stop or pause button. Relentless Google Survey questions separate us from articles. It is difficult for users to login, reset their password, or become paying subscribers.

andy-rossbackIf you think about design, it’s not hard to see why fake news sites exist. They look a lot like real news sites. The media industry has neglected to hire or empower the tech, design, and product people who can change that. Even worse, fake news sites are eating our lunch by serving up the same click-driven ad model without the overhead of doing any real reporting. None of this is said with disrespect to the talented sales staffs who hustle everyday to make the numbers work. We can’t afford to leave money on the table, and bad advertising is also only part of the problem. But ultimately, it is building exceptional editorial design sensibilities — and the character of our communities or content — into our products that will separate us from easy-to-install WordPress themes. News design, at its most useful, is an important media literacy tool.

So 2017 will be the year of the user. In the lifespan of digital news websites, it’s a tectonic shift from advertiser-first to user-first. Like the disorganized printed newspapers of the 1800s, some will put design to work in the service of credibility and be better off. Gains in subscriber and donation revenue (not just the post-election gains) will relieve enough pressure to allow for some soul searching. These models are realigning profits with user experience. Users will pay — but we have to offer something good. We will realign our design and user experience with the same ethics and standards we bring to our journalism. We will finally have a clear product strategy: drive subscriptions by focusing on content. We will take a page from Quartz and favor high-end advertisements that add value for the user over JavaScript-heavy programmatic ads that degrade performance. We will give users an uninterrupted path to editorial offerings and use design to enhance them.

Andy Rossback is a designer and developer at The New York Times.

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