Magazine article Editor & Publisher

User (Not) Friendly: When It Comes to Newspaper Websites, Simpler Is Better

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

User (Not) Friendly: When It Comes to Newspaper Websites, Simpler Is Better

Article excerpt

Considering most media companies intend their websites to serve a large audience of readers, it's surprising that we're at the dawn of 2016 and still dealing with issues like bad design, difficult readability and a frustrating lack of usability.

Unfortunate as it is, news organizations have become synonymous with bad Web design. Most TV news stations have templates filled with more wingdings than a Geocities website circa 1996. Newspapers don't do much better, packing their stories with so many callbacks, videos and related links that at times is seems they want readers anywhere except the story they've chosen to read.

It's even worse on mobile, where a smaller screen leads to a diminishing financial return, causing publishers to load their pages with pop-ups, fly-outs and video ads that often inhibit the readers ability to consume a story.

"Even today I think our pages and our experience have such a close lineage to print," said Marc Lavallee, the editor of interactive news at The New York Times. "There's this tendency just to put a bunch of (stuff) on the page."

Lost in the great chase of buzz words like "engagement" is the core mission of all media companies (and the hoards of storytellers they employ): How to get readers to retain the knowledge they've learned from reading their stories.

In his day job at the Washington Post, product manager Alex Remington works with a team to develop everything from interactive graphics to games and quizzes for the newspaper's website. But Remington, who prior to his job at the Post earned a Master's degree in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, took advantage of a fellowship from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to study how news organizations can design stories to create a more memorable experience among their readers.

So Remington, with the help of University of Missouri School of Journalism professor Paul Bolls, designed a study to offer scientific evidence how publishers can tailor their content to truly engage their readers. Basically, Remington took 80 news readers, hooked them up to electrodes and showed them four stories on mobile, desktop and tablet--some on clean, "brain friendly" templates, and some on cluttered, "brain unfriendly" templates.

And what did Remington discover?

"Not surprisingly, we discovered cleaner design is better and readers like it better," he said. "A lot of what the study did was validate the instincts we all already have."

The practical takeaway is readers thought the "brain friendly" version of the stories were more interesting, were easier to read and made them want to find out more about the topic. According to Remington, this is concrete empirical evidence of something most designers have been telling their bosses for years--better-designed stories will increase engagement with readers.

Remington's study points to three main changes that developers at media companies can make to significantly improve a reader's experience on their website:

* Format the text of the story into shorter paragraphs.

* Highlight important story faces and terms.

* Offer stories on clean, uncluttered Web pages.

"By making these small changes, organizations can help their readers be more engaged and more informed," Remington said, noting that it also increases the likelihood they'll revisit a website they're satisfied with again and again. …

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