How do we improve online news design to help readers better understand stories?
In July, I shared preliminary results of a study on how readers perceive and learn from online news stories. The upshot: Better-designed stories are better for readers.
As Paul Bolls and I began to design our study, I conducted phone interviews with more than a dozen editors and designers. I asked them how they think about making their work memorable and comprehensible, and how they tested what worked best. Their responses share a few broad themes.
First, digital design is not as evolved as print design. The print newspaper offers the ability to communicate hierarchies of salience and context, all of which the standard Web article template lacks.
Second, for many of them, Web analytics do not play a major role in their day-to-day decision-making. Page views and other metrics are tracked, but beyond limited A/B testing — picking winners based on traffic — analytics do not guide major editorial decisions.
Third, while they seek to make stories and infographics as understandable as possible, memorability is not a major focus. It cannot be measured, and so it generally is not considered.
Many noted that print design is far better understood than online news design. “The newspaper’s very layout is in many ways geared toward helping the reader understand very quickly, including even the inverted pyramid,” says Heather Billings, a designer and developer at the Chicago Tribune. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate online.”
Many newsrooms are trying to iterate rapidly in digital design, even as they realize that much of the status quo is based on the print paper. “We put a lot of investment in the variety of article layout options and the ability to place interactive options,” says Marc Lavallee, the editor of interactive news at The New York Times. “Sometimes there is automated logic that will place elements in the story algorithmically, or the editor can take charge and have control at the paragraph level.”
However, Lavallee admits that the work has only started. “Even today I think our pages and our experience have such a close lineage to print,” he says. “There’s this tendency just to put a bunch of [stuff] on the page.”
"There's an attention economy."
Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, notes that he typically has less control over stories online than in print. "We don’t have as much control over typography, realistically, because a lot of it is automated, and it takes too much time to design a Web page constantly," he says. "Unless we override automation, we don’t have much control over how those stories fall on the page."
Part of the reason for that is the Daily Tribune has a self-described "one-man Web development team," Brice Bertels, who says that A/B tests are "the main thing we do for using data to drive our design." Many newspapers have a similar struggle to find Web development resources. Even large newspapers with enough budget to hire an outside agency often have to operate within what Lily Mihalik, a digital designer at the Los Angeles Times, calls "the constraints of the redesign." Otherwise, they must create custom designs for every story they want to look different.
“There’s an attention economy that we are aware of,” says Andrew Kueneman, deputy director of digital design at The New York Times. “So when we have pieces that are long and elaborate, and we have embedded assets that are different from the linear narrative text, we think: Are people going to be confused and overwhelmed, or are they going to be drawn in?” The reader is always in their minds. “We cannot risk basic comprehension for any reason,” he says.
Boston Globe designer Patrick Garvin agrees. He frames it this way: "The question you ask is, ‘What is the most important thing that we’re trying to say,’ and then, ‘what are our limits?’ Sometimes, the limit might be your time turnaround." Other times, he says, the question is: "How much time is the reader going to want to spend with it?"
"I had to assume I only had five minutes of people’s time."
Reader constraints were a common theme. "I had to assume I only had five minutes of people’s time. The rule of thumb is, you don’t want to force people to spend more time than that," says Rob Schneider, creative director at the Dallas Business Journal and past president for the Society for News Design. "What I was trying to do was to make it organized ... so that scanning would give the opportunity to give a better sense of the story than their previous experience with the paper."
Yet many noted that design principles often conflict with revenue priorities. “You want to take down as many barriers to understanding as possible,” says Mihalik. “That’s one of the problems with advertising sometimes. Like the flyover ad — that really can be disruptive.”
David Wright, a platform designer at Twitter, makes the same point in even stronger language. "I try to make a parallel between what Disney has done in the creation and the curation of their parks,” he says. “They obsess over every detail and in return, they’re able to charge a ton for admission to their parks. News organizations, in a scramble to get money, have disrespected readers by putting things that extract value from readers there, instead of things that provide value."
“It’s an art more than a science.”
Many decisions are made by gut, not by data. “We’re on deadline, we have to put something in front of millions of people in a few hours,” explains The New York Times’s Kueneman, “So it’s an art more than a science.” His colleague Marc Lavallee agrees: “It’s literally an art and not a science.” Len DeGroot, director of data visualization at the Los Angeles Times, echoed them both. “It hasn’t been that scientific,” he says. It has been difficult to integrate Web analytics into the editorial workflow, and analytics are ultimately limited by the data that they can capture.
When editors think about memorability, they rely on rules of thumb. "We’re not looking at the goal of making them remember it a week later," says Matt Cavanah, Web editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, "but we do try to make it easier for them to digest the story, and hope the comprehension comes from it being easier to digest."
One of the major measures of success is one of the simplest: If readers keep coming back, it means the publisher is doing something right. "There’s no pop quiz at the end, there’s no test, we’re not 100 percent sure they got the information," says Yuri Victor, a senior UX designer at Vox Media. "[But] they are returning. That’s a measure that, for us, they are coming for this information. Instead of going to Google they’re coming to our site for that information."
Ramla Mahmood, a designer at Vox Media, says she tries to encourage repeat visitors. "The first thing I look at is, will it be something that will draw the reader in and make them stay?" she says. "We want to make it look nice enough that they’ll scan through it but also stay and read it later on."
"This isn’t just something I’ve dreamed up in my millennial brain that’s going to kill you."
"I think a lot in terms of referencing — so, if I had forgotten it, how likely am I to remember it?" says Rachel Schallom, interactive editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "For instance, I’m designing our list of Black Friday stores: When do they open? Where are they? What is the parking situation? The user might want to reference that."
Schallom frequently writes memos to her colleagues referencing research or internal analytics, and is constantly looking for better data. "I find analytics helpful because I’m young, I’m a woman, and I’m telling people that what they’re doing is wrong, and that doesn’t go over well if they’ve been doing it for 30 years," she says. "The numbers help me say, this isn’t just something I’ve dreamed up in my millennial brain that’s going to kill you.
"I use data to help us make better decisions. Sometimes the data tells us that what we've always done isn't the best way. Data helps make that a rational change of course instead of pointing fingers.”
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