Four Design Sins Committed By Local News Sites

December 12, 2008

I was in the middle of writing a post about how the science of reading has completely changed when viewing information through a web browser, when I asked my friend Marcus about wztv.com and his response was the letter I posted yesterday. I felt like it just deserved it’s own post because it tastefully highlighted why most people have very little understanding of how eyes read a news web page. I’ve since revised my own article to highlight four unforgivable sins committed by news web sites…

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Four Design Sins of Local News Sites:

The most important thing to understand is that a news site bears very little relationship to a print layout. I am correct on this if only because if I was wrong, we’d not be talking about this issue and instead we’d all be reading PDF files of our favorite publications. There are plenty examples of  local news who site borrow elements from the print school of logic — and very rarely do these elements translate positively to their new medium.

Multiple Columns: Perhaps the biggest sin committed by local news organization’s web site, is the appearance of several columns of information, each containing a different category of content or sometimes advertisements. 1-column design is too few, while 7-column is sensory overload. I would argue 5- and 6-column design on a local news site is just as overloading. Too much information when you pull up the screen lessens the chance that you’ll be lured into more than one or two things you were looking for. If anything it’s confusing to the person viewing that much information. They’re more likely to act like one-stop shop customers than patron followers of your online publication. Sure that site probably has a following, a group of people that checks the site every single day, but those people are relying on memory from repeated visits — that may be OK for artistic style preference, but you are not going to gain new readers if you don’t start making it easier on them to show up unannounced and get comfortable. A 2-column layout is perfect for the actual article content page. Three-columns is probably the standard among the majority of sites producing a steady flow of constantly updated information. And 4-column is risky but, if formulated with lost of thought, can look full without overwhelming, as is the case with the Times Online.  Personally I prefer 2-column sites.

Too many colors: Another sin is trying to include as much of the rainbow in your site’s basic design framework as possible. Anything with a dark background is going to take away from the main content, which is why people navigate to the news site in the first place. If they can’t find this immediately — with in the first glance — then you’ve probably just lost a few page views to some of your main content. I would say the use of grays, whites and blacks are all base colors but I wouldn’t chose more than two to distinguish who you are as a publication. I love how techradar.com uses its color pallet.

No differentiation between advertisements and content: The other problem with adding too much color is that your ads, which are usually more flashy and intensive, either won’t be recognized or will blend in with the jungle of other colors, thus becoming less effective and making you less money. Aside from the principles stated above, one subtle tactic is being employed as a way to both monetize the the advert effectively and keep it distinct from your main content. A rounded corner design is significant because it makes a separate identity for the site and allows advertisers the freedom to shape their message however they’d like.

Vertical presentation: Regardless of whether you chose a 1- 2- 3- or -4 column design for your site. The designed information should scroll vertically down the page and never side by side. It shouldn’t stop partially down the way of the page and then begin again with something completely different. I find it maddening that people do not make a “blog” front page design where all the posts descent by date posted one after another. This is the MOST effective way to get people to read a story because it only gives them one element to concentrate  on viewing, if they don’t like that element. they can scroll downwards without feeling like they’re leaving anything behind. An additional advantage to designing your site in this way, as does all of the Gawker Media affiliated web sites,  is that it translates very well to reading via mobile phone device or something similar.

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