BCNI Notes: Design Roundtable "News Sites Still Suck"

Yes, this post is a bit delayed, but now that I'm on a flight home to Cali, I finally have a moment to finish it.

My BCNI experience finished with a bang thanks to Major Highfield's roundtable discussion on news site design and mobile news design. For those of you who don't know Major, the former newsie is now the mobile tech lead for ING Direct. His roundtable was an open discussion about what works and what doesn't in current news design, and a look forward at new ideas and trends.

He identified the following most common types of design we see in news:

Column Design (NYT)

Very reminiscent of print design, "column"-based news sites have thin vertical modules. The most well-known example is the New York Times.

Grid view (CNN)

The grid news design has less emphasis on hierarchy and gives equal balance to story display. Although Major used CNN as the example, I've included Newser as a more ideal example of the grid layout.

Buckets (MSNBC)

Bucket designs group stories by topic beneath a main header.

Lists (Digg)

Timeline view or "river" view are also common terms for a list layout which is as it sounds: A list of headlines, like Digg.

Combo package (Toronto Star)

The Toronto Star combines these different possibilities by offering the user different modes of viewing news, although Major noted that this isn't ideal UI. The Toronoto Star manages multiple layouts from which the users can choose their favorite:

Major said you should push out the best user experience and not force the user to choose. Based on the heavy emphasis the Star's designers put on evidence-based design, I'd venture to guess that they're collecting data about which display is used most often in preparation for something radical. But that's just a guess. :)

Combining advertising with editorial design

Traditionally, display ads thrown into random columns and headers of news sites was the preferred advertising style online, as adapted from a print model. The new type of advertising comes in the form of embedded ads (i.e. ads displayed inline with the rest of the editorial content). We see this manifesting in LA Times' decision to sell keyword ads within articles this week. A bad example of this can also be seen on CNN.com:

A good example of embedded advertising is in the free desktop version of Tweetie:

I think the reason CNN's embedded ads fail is because CNN isn't being honest with its customers. Tweetie clearly labels its ads as such and implements them elegantly into the design of the app. It also helps that the ads are very targeted at the user. CNN's embedded ads try to look like editorial content and it's deceitful. They're also not very useful or pretty.

Takeaways

So the point of all this is that news sites still suck. One nugget that really stood out was in our conversation about news site navigation. We still categorize stories under sports, arts, news, opinion, etc. because this is how the print product was laid out. But is that what's relevant to readers? I know that when I browse news, I don't care about the topic. I care about the timeliness and its relevance to me, no matter what "section" it falls within. I don't necessarily want to read about crime and sports, but if it's happening within a three block radius of me, then I do care. So maybe instead of categorizing news sites into traditional categories, we can make the main navigational elements more relevant with categories like "time" and "location" (see the Spokesman Review for a great example of this).

One revelation that came about for me during this discussion (which might ironically deem this entire blog post irrelevant) is the fact that news design doesn't matter at all when we're all subscribing to news via RSS. Is there really any type of news site experience that will be more convenient and relevant? Am I ever going to want to visit 40 different sites each day, all of which are designed differently, and hunt down news that's relevant to me within each of those sites? Or would I rather leave my Google Reader extension active in the browser, open in it in between tasks, quickly be presented with news I already know is relevant to me (distraction-free), and carry on with life? The latter is the news consumption pattern that fits best into my daily routine and allows me to consume the most news in the least amount of time. The fact that Google Reader's social features push me the most relevant news being shared by the people I follow only increases its relevancy.

So maybe the question we should be asking ourselves as news designers isn't how to make our sites better, but how to create an experience that surpasses that of the Google Reader experience. And maybe that's the topic of another post. Stay tuned...