Ezra Klein’s Project X is here, and now it is called Vox.com.
This is what he and several of journalists left The Washington Post for. It’s early, but I’m impressed. There is still much work to done, however, to really make this new news organization stand out.
Here are my early thoughts:
- The design is simple — There is nothing about the Web design of Vox.com that is eye popping. The site is clean, simple and easy to use. The design probably took less time to build than a lot of metro newspaper websites. Good design is about saying no, not yes. When you look at most journalism websites, it looks like no was almost never said no, except when it came to trying new things. Vox.com isn’t cluttered with random crap that most people don’t want. That’s the beauty of its design. Also, the design works very well on mobile, which is key to harnessing social media traffic properly. I also imagine Vox.com is aimed at a lot of educated, urban users who will read stories on their way to work on public transportation or at coffee shops on breaks. This website is perfect for those kinds of users.
- The content is delicious and slightly esoteric — Naturally I’m a fan. Vox.com is a general interest site, except it’s not. It’s a general interest site for people who share Ezra Klein’s taste, just as Daring Fireball is a general interest site for those who share John Gruber’s taste in tech. It’s a site aimed at educated, urban, urbane readers who care about policy. Frankly, it’s a website that appeals more to your typical white-collar DC-area worker than the Washington Post does. I think general interest news sites are a tough business when they try to appeal to everyone. That’s what metro newspapers have traditional done, and while it worked in print, it’s a tougher sell online. Vox.com is a general interest website aimed at a niche audience. I think it’s the only way general interest can work on the Web. I also would think that advertisers are pretty excited about this site.
- I love the Vox Conversations videos — There is nothing fancy technologically about these videos, just a big heaping of taste. The quality is high, and the videos are well thought out and edited. This isn’t smartphone journalism. This is video that would make Charlie Rose and TED proud. Lots of news organizations could do the same thing, but video like this takes time to build. These conversations are the kind of videos, however, that will be relevant for a long time to come, like TED Talks, which allows you to have higher production costs. The idea of producing tons of journalism each day is incongruous with high quality. These videos showcase that.
- Cards are Wikipedia-esque way to explain large stories — I’d suggest firing this feature up on a mobile device to really get the full effect. Essentially cards are a way to explain by topics, such as the Ukraine Crisis, in more manageable chunks. Think of it as a more approachable Wikipedia that is more tightly edited on current hot-button topics. This is also a way to give context to stories. And Cards are a nice way to present ads to users every few clicks and swipes without detracting from the main content. Cards are kind of a high-brow way to do slideshows on important topics. Every news organization that has covered what is going on in Ukraine should have an explainer feature about what is going on. Just reporting on the day-to-day goings on with Ukraine and Russia doesn’t educate users on the why. News organizations should care more about the why. Cards are all about the why. The true value of cards, however, won’t be realized until they can be linked to additional reporting.
- The lack of comments and community features is disappointing — News websites feel dead without community. Even though Vox.com features a nice design that works well on all my devices, and has stories that speak to me, the inability to read what people think and share my own opinions leaves me detached from this site. I don’t comment on most journalism sites that I read, but just reading the comments that are left (at least on the sites that build strong communities), enriches the experience and makes me feel a part of something bigger. The comments on nytimes.com, for instance, are fantastic and often extend the story significantly. I hope we see community features added soon, because Vox.com just doesn’t feel complete right now.
- Excellent use of charts and data — I’m not talking about big data or fancy data-drive projects. I’m talking about putting in easy-to-read charts and graphs when they help tell a story. Does your story involve data of some sort? It should have at least one data visualization. That could be as simple as an Excel chart.
- I dig the yellow color — Yellow is not a common color for websites. I’m grown weary of seeing so many blue websites or black and white color palettes for news organization. The yellow works well on several levels. Not only does Vox.com feel fresh like spring, but the yellow also reminds a user of highlighting a college textbook. Vox.com is a general interest news website, but it also wants to be educated and wonkish. The yellow color and the way links look like underlines in a textbook really underscore that. They even made links look like a real highlighter went over them by not being symmetrical. It’s a nice touch.
- Text could be bigger — The text on Vox.com is bigger than most news organizations (some news organizations seem to want to make reading as difficult as possible), but I’d still like to see it bigger. Larger text is easier on the eyes, making reading easier for longer periods of time. For a site that wants to be wonkish and bookish, bigger type would help accomplish that. Bigger type is also easier on older eyes and people with vision issues. Medium does the best job of any website with text. I love the size and font choices they made. I’d like to see Vox.com adopt something similar.
- Look Mom, no Flash! — The videos are viewable without Flash. Every news website needs to do this. It’s no surprise that a tech-focused company like Vox would use HTML 5 for everything, but it’s still worth mentioning.
- I’d like to see higher resolution video — This is also a complaint that I have with another Vox property, The Verge. I’d love to be able to see some of their videos in higher resolution. The initial Vox Conversations video is soft and highly compressed. This keeps costs down and helps with loading times, but I’d like to see an option for at least high quality 720p video. Heck, I’d probably chip in $10 a year just for this feature. A lot of people won’t care about this, but it’s a premium feature that some may enjoy.
For those wondering, we’ll be launching a new responsive design this summer for the Interchange Project. This design was hastily hacked together. I’m excited to put all of my previous Web knowledge together with everything I’ve learned in my Human-computer Interaction master’s program.
The new nytimes.com website is not the kind of design I would give a news website, but it is a big step forward for the news organization.
I’ve waited a few weeks to do a critique of the new nytimes.com design because I wanted to give it some time to sink in and really spend several hours with it. Additional time spent with the new design has made my opinion of the site more favorable. The site is universally better than the one it replaces and is better than most websites from traditional news orgs.
I’ve come to appreciate some of the design choices more with time, although there are still some things that should be changed. It’s a cleaner, smarter website, but it at times tries to mimic print too much and still doesn’t embrace good design enough.
Below are some of my thoughts on what I like about the new design and some things that I think could be tightened up. I didn’t do a usability study with live users like I’ve done with other news sites, nor did I run tests to check for accessibility (this may come in the future). Below are my impressions based on my expertise, but additional studies and testing would be advisable before making big changes.
What I like
- Small headers — There is no reason to push your content half way down the page with a huge header and navigation system. I particularly like how article pages get a smaller logo than the homepage. This let’s users get into actual nytimes.com quicker and makes pages feel more about content and less about a corporate brand. One issue with a huge header and navigation system is that it can raise your bounce rate because it takes users longer to figure out what is going on. Remember, the vast majority of visitors to news websites come in via search engines and social media referrals. These users more likely have less of an idea of what they are about to get into then someone who has navigated to an article from a homepage of a news website. Even a few moments of confusion is enough to cause a user to X out of your webpage.
- No more side navigation — The main navigation system has been moved to the top of the site from the left-hand side. This allows for the homepage, article pages and section pages to be more dynamic and allows for many more article page template optins. It gives more pixels to what really matters on a website. It also puts the navigation in the same place on desktop, tablet and mobile, which a side navigation cannot do (navigation really needs to be at the top on mobile to be usable for users). The only reason to have a left-hand navigation is if you’re doing a dynamic news river with real stories with compelling headlines. Having a side navigation with links such as news, sports, opinion, etc. is a waste of space and should be immediately redone.
- Cleaner article pages — For all that is going on on nytimes.com article pages, they are surprisingly clean. There is text, images, video, graphics, related links, additional stories to read, comments, etc. Despite this, the site feels clean and airy. This is good. The New York Times was smart with how it paced different design features on article pages. Some websites try to cram everything below on article page or in a right-hand column. The new nytimes.com starts at the very top and works its way down to the bottom. The much smaller header and navigation on article pages also really helps here too. The pacing of website features and story content feels very natural.
- More entry points to additional content — Getting a reader onto an article page is not enough; most users will leave your website after reading an article if they aren’t presented with interesting articles to read next. You need to present users with additional stories to read and photos and videos to view. The new nytimes.com does a fantastic job of presenting lots of different entry points for users, while not making article pages feel cluttered and cheap. The top of every article has editor’s picks stories. The bottom has top news, additional stories from the section you’re reading and the most emailed stories. Sections such as news, sports, health, business and opinion are not entry points. Actual stories with compelling headlines are. The nytimes.com redesign does a good job of presenting lots of additional options without bedazzling the page in cruft that detracts from the user experience. It’s a fine line to walk, but the nytimes.com redesign does it as well as anyone.
What needs improvement
- Why aren’t photos and graphics bigger? — In general, I don’t get why news orgs insist on putting small photos and graphics into article pages. There is no real use case for this, and this seems like a print anachronism that page designers insist on bringing over to the Web. Big photos and graphics look better and are easier to understand. The worst is when an image is placed into a story at a small size and can’t be enlarged and because of that you have no idea what’s going on. There is no use case for that. There will never be a use case for a news organization showing photos and graphics that are indecipherable. The nytimes.com redesign usually lets you make photos and graphics bigger but not always. I don’t know why the behavior isn’t consistent, but it should be. This is particularly and issue for charts that have small type and keys on them.
- Text needs to be bigger — News orgs have a big issue with small text. I have to assume that designers think it looks better, but it’s hard to read, and if you make something hard to read, people often won’t read it. Reading is a fundamental thing that users do on news websites. Text should be big, feature a high quality font (particularly for HiDPI displays) and have a good contrast. The new nytimes.com has bigger text, but it could still be 25-50 percent bigger. There are two reasons for this: A) bigger text is easier on older and tired eyes and B) bigger text is more enjoable for everyone to read, making it more likely that people stay on your text-heavy site longer. People used to claim that people don’t like to read as much on the Web, and because of this, writing on the Web should be shorter. This is false. The issue is that Web text is often small, poor contrast, with low-quality fonts. Of course people don’t enjoy reading that. Part of this had to do with display technology and we had to make certain affordances for poor, low resolution display technology, but HiDPI displays (what Apple calls Retina) are taking over the market. They make text look as good as printed text. A good display will certainly encourage users to read more, but Web designers still have to do their part with high quality typography. Last year I wrote how Retina/HiDPI displays will reduce eyestrain and should lead to more reading. It lays out why this new display technology, which most mobile devices have and increasingly laptops have, is making Web reading easier (my phone, tablet and laptop all feature a HiDPI display, and I love reading on them). This is also allowing for higher quality, print-caliber fonts, which also make reading more enjoyable. Medium does the best job I’ve seen of using typography for Web writing. It’s just an enjoyable reading experience for years. That’s what all news orgs should want. Traditional news orgs are some of the best producers of the written word in the world. They need to start making the written word more enjoyable to consume on the Web.
- Not enough nods to what users like — One of my favorite new navigation features is trending topics, where underneath the main navigation is a set of topics that are getting the most traffic on the website. I’m not surprised The New York Times wouldn’t hand over navigational control to the crowd, but it’s still a missed opportunity. Users like to know what other users find compelling. Topics, as opposed to stories, are a good way to let people delve into bigger issues too (there isn’t just one New Jersey bridge scandal story, for instance).
- The homepage is bland and forgettable — It is true that design time should be spent on article pages and not on homepages and section fronts, as the majority of traffic comes to individual article pages, but the cluttered and boring homepage design for the new nytimes.com is still disappointing. It still features small photos. It still features small headlines. It still has trouble driving a users eye to a main story or any story for that matter. The New York Times can get away with this for tradition’s sake, but almost every other news organization can’t. It’s not just that it looks too print-like, it’s also that it doesn’t even function well. Frankly, everything kind of just blends together on the NYT homepage, making it hard to pick out anything to read. I rarely find myself going to the nytimes.com homepage anymore, partly because it’s such a frustrating user interface for discovery. Instead, I find almost every nytimes.com story from social referrals.
- Having trouble viewing mobile website — On my laptop, I can view mobile.nytimes.com and see the new homepage on mobile. On my phone it takes me to the desktop homepage. This is a bug that should be easy enough to fix, but it does need to be fixed. The desktop homepage is virtually unusable on mobile.