For digital media publishers, Design is the biggest challenge. Business model is king, of course, but it needs strong design to reign. The same goes for content. Without clever navigation, after a quick stunt on the home page, a good story might die buried deep inside the bowels of a site before realizing its full potential. (Smartly enough, Slate.com used to call "compost" its stacks of forgotten stories). In this regard, many web structures are lethal: they give way too much weight and visibility to novelty, at the expense of relevancy.
After more than fifteen years of internet presence, many online publications are still having trouble moving past the newspaper metaphor. Columns, pages, sections, vertical scrolling…, the old-world graphical newspaper attributes still rule the web and contribute to a quasi-failure on three critical counts:
#1 The identity test. Check for yourself. Take the home page of a dozen online newspapers; once you've cut off the header displaying the publication’s title, they become extremely difficult to differentiate from one another. To say nothing of connecting to the paper’s brand. General grid, typography, colors palette, are almost all alike. Of course, the web lowest denominator rule is largely to blame – but there is more.
#2 The personality test. Browse every physical newspaper and see how you “get it”.
First, you're quickly able to capture of the news cycle’s dominance and its intensity. The size of headlines and illustrations, the space devoted to stories, the angles, all give you a clear idea of the day’s flavor.
Second, you'll be able to quickly assess the publication’s political leaning, again by evaluating the hierarchy of treatments. Because of the computer screen’s narrow funnel, as opposed to the carbon-based paper UI, it is much more difficult to do so for an online publication.
#3 The serendipity test, i.e. the ability to enjoy something that we were not looking for, a sort of semi-accidental discovery. To me, this might be the most important feature/function.
A print publication, magazine or daily, carries a mix of contents that, in turn, leads to a collection of experiences. I pick the publication because of the implicit contract between the publisher and me, a contract based on trust and expectations.
Trust combines editorial judgment and execution; it can fluctuate. A newspaper can become less trustworthy if its editorial leadership weakens. Expectations carry the serendipity factor: I know this newspaper is going to trigger my curiosity without taking me into totally unchartered territories. I take this paper for its business section to see how it covers the Goldman Sachs scandal, but I will find this fantastic profile of an unknown tycoon, or this opinion piece that challenges my views on a particular subject, but is well balanced, well written.
I did the test many times. Every day, I look at web sites for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or the Guardian. And, each time I happened to get a physical copy of those papers, I found a great deal of material that escaped my sight on the web. On print, the feeling of abundance and diversity is without match. (I'm still buying French papers for that reason). Again, this has to do with the way information is structured on the internet, with the home page bottleneck, with the rigidity of the medium (and, yes, a lack of originality, a sneaky herd mentality in both design and content).
The fundamental fracture between print and digital media lies exactly here: paper is a fantastic vector for a reading experience driven by curiosity; the web is a cold medium utterly efficient for a search-based, focus-driven reading.
How to reconcile the two? There is no single (nor simple) answer. Such solution will arise from a combination of User Interface evolution with a real ability to deal with new devices, and with better search implementation.
To put it bluntly, most home pages suck. In the best of cases, they are a narrow funnel to (sometimes) great contents. Everyone tried their home-grown solution. Some bet on multiple (dozens) updates a day. In theory, this is fine since, at some point, the best stories make an appearance on the front page. But such rapid cycling blurs the essential notion of hierarchy which lies at the cornerstone of news editing.
Other editors believe in a twenty scroll-down system (see previous story The Web's Design Problem). This arrangement has merit: it recites most of the content over and over and it is search engine-friendly (is it really that important nowadays?). But studies show that a headline placed "below the fold" (after the first top scroll) loses most of its readers. Better go for a skimmer, i.e. a one-screen non scrollable system. The NY Times displays an interesting example of a skimmer that can be set to "serendipity" (here we are!), "priority" or various other presentations. In itself, the existence of such catalog illustrates the difficult task of fine-tuning the right interface for the new medium.
The only valid approach is to explore, test and analyze. Online newspapers should work like design studios in the car industry. First, define a set of specifications and principles. Then, start with a blank slate to be filled by brilliant students through contests. There are plenty of journalism awards; why not news design prizes for young talents? Let's organize one!
Devices. The serendipity question will be hard to solve by design only. But it might get help from new gizmos such as Lean-Back Devices (see Jean-Louis'column below). After a couple of weeks using my iPad, I can feel something new is starting to happen. "LBDs" could be the missing link for modern media consumption. More efficient than a newspaper, but less frenetic that today’s monkey-brain web pages. The LBDs will depend upon the application ecosystem, upon the quality of interfaces and upon the pricing policies – and they are likely to be more brand-centered than today’s undifferentiated PC-based web access. LBDs could restore notions such as trust and affinity and, as a result, open the way to a more in-depth reading experience. And they will also combine the power and convenience of digital media. Through the Kindle application and the Apple iBooks of my iPad, I've loaded samples of books I'm thinking of buying; I will most certainly purchase many of them. And when I'm done, instead of having to go to my physical bookshelf, pore over sticky notes stuffed between pages and searching forgotten pencil annotations, this set of books will remain alive in my device, searchable, useful. All with a 30% discount over the dead-tree product.
Search. I've already addressed this issue many times. I'm still puzzled by the gap between today's search capabilities and their poor implementation for the news business. There is no a day when I'm not fumbling with something I want to retrieve from a news site. Not only searches, but tags, topics, categories are vastly underutilized. And recommendation engines are still in a prehistoric state.
I look at dozens sources every day. I go through them by titles (many of them I actually pay for, roughly $800 a year, all combined). I also browse through several professional blogs covering media, tech, business, but also photography, architecture, design, aerospace, higher education, science, etc. In addition, I look at Twitter feeds, selecting only those which send me to something relevant.
This is what I want and what I'm ready to pay for. What I need is a something way, way more sophisticated than my current jury-rigged system of bookmarks, RSS and microblogging feeds. They all put a strain on my carpal tunnel and waste my time. For my professional use of the internet, I need a dashboard, shaped by a set of parameters and, more importantly, based on my past readings, past searches. I need a statistical, machine learning system that will detect my interest in the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption (which prevented me to go to NYC last week) or in the Greek debt crisis and direct me to fresh and relevant content, whatever its form.
As more and more of these sources will become paid-for, I'd be happy to have a unique console. From there, I'd manage my accounts, both for yearly subscriptions and soon-to-be metered payments for which I want nothing more than a one-click system with a weekly consolidated statement. Amazon and iTunes have been able to provide me these services for years. For hundred of my most preferred digital sources, why not hoping for the same level of clean service? Actually, I'm confident it’ll end up that way.
My guess is, unlike print, digital contents publishers will be much faster to understand that competition has to stop right outside of the newsroom’s door.