Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

News Web site user interfaces

Patrick Thornton wrote about user interfaces today, and how news Web sites are so loath to move away from an interface that mimicks the print product.

The last time I visited a news Web site, I was an employee of the paper working on code changes. I’m not counting clicking through to articles, but deliberately going to the home page of a site.

So Where Do I Get News?

I get my news from a couple of sources:

  • Google Reader, where I’m subscribed to over 400 blogs and news sites (including a personalized version of Google News), in addition to recieving shared content from all my friends
  • Twitter, where I follow over 400 users, mostly journalists
  • The AP Mobile News application on my phone. Great for the long commute to work.

Why Don’t I Go To News Sites?

Because they don’t give me what I want. Because I prefer serendipity.

I’m interested in a lot of things and a lot of places and a lot of people. There isn’t one place where I can get all the information I want. And I’m busy, I don’t have time to spend all day bouncing from site to site, hoping someone wrote or produced something I care about.

The other reason is this: A lot of people complain about the Internet being an echo chamber. To some degree, this sucks. I have to scroll through a bunch of work that is the same concept iterated over and over.

But, since I don’t visit news sites, I also don’t see the hierarchy that editors and readers have placed on certain stories. The echo chamber mitigates this problem for me, because I can gurantee that if something is important (or even important only to a certain group of people…people I chose to follow because I care about what’s important to them…) I’ll see it at least 5 times in Google Reader and another 20 on Twitter.

Is a different UI (user interface) really going to change my behavior? I’ll still have to visit multiple sites. The river of news (a la Facebook or Twitter) can get really annoying when I’m looking for something specific. For me, that only works seredipitously. And those cool mapping UI are just cluttery and hard to focus on. To be honest, if I’m looking for articles on a specific topic, I’ll just do a Google search.

Thornton is right, though: news Web sites need to stop emulating print. But they need to do it in a way that actually helps the users. We’ve learned certain behaviors when looking for content online. There are rules that we expect Web sites to follow, and when those are bent too much, we get frustrated. Not good for news sites.

So the question is, without breaking basic UI rules or being gimmicky, how should news sites be designed differently?

Edit: Check out the comments for a discussion between Aron Pilhofer and myself about user interface vs. user interaction.

  • So, curious about something you said here. You don’t visit news sites because you want serendipity? That seems contradictory to me.

    In print, serendipity comes as you’re browsing the paper front-to-back, and you stumble on things that interest you.

    The only online equivalent to that I know of is the home page, which has usually been edited by human beings. Frequently, they’ll push stories to the home page from sections I routinely ignore — and there’s your moment of serendipity.

    I, too, am addicted to Google reader, but I find RSS is generally a terrible way to discover new things. But its nature, RSS is section- or topic-bound, and the chances of me finding something there that utterly surprises is pretty low.

    Facebooking news as an alternative view (arguably, that’s kind of what TimesPeople is) is a good idea as a supplement. But as an interface, it’s a horrible way to consume news — particularly if the notion of serendipity is important to you. By definition, you’ll only see stories that meet a certain threshold of popularity, which is kind of the opposite of what you want.

    So, to my mind, Thornton (as usual) couldn’t be more wrong. If serendipity is a valuable thing — and it is — then what media sites should be doing is EXACTLY the opposite. We should be finding ways to bring what’s great about the experience of reading a newspaper (or watching a newscast) online.

    And the notion of serendipity should be very, very high on the list of traits we want to emulate — there I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • So, curious about something you said here. You don’t visit news sites because you want serendipity? That seems contradictory to me.

    In print, serendipity comes as you’re browsing the paper front-to-back, and you stumble on things that interest you.

    The only online equivalent to that I know of is the home page, which has usually been edited by human beings. Frequently, they’ll push stories to the home page from sections I routinely ignore — and there’s your moment of serendipity.

    I, too, am addicted to Google reader, but I find RSS is generally a terrible way to discover new things. But its nature, RSS is section- or topic-bound, and the chances of me finding something there that utterly surprises is pretty low.

    Facebooking news as an alternative view (arguably, that’s kind of what TimesPeople is) is a good idea as a supplement. But as an interface, it’s a horrible way to consume news — particularly if the notion of serendipity is important to you. By definition, you’ll only see stories that meet a certain threshold of popularity, which is kind of the opposite of what you want.

    So, to my mind, Thornton (as usual) couldn’t be more wrong. If serendipity is a valuable thing — and it is — then what media sites should be doing is EXACTLY the opposite. We should be finding ways to bring what’s great about the experience of reading a newspaper (or watching a newscast) online.

    And the notion of serendipity should be very, very high on the list of traits we want to emulate — there I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • You’re right, RSS doesn’t lend itself to serendipity. Although with Google News, I often get stories I wouldn’t have gone looking for.

    But Twitter does. So does Delicious (which I forgot to mention…). Neither of these emulate newspapers.

    I guess I should have emphasized the reluctance to spend a lot of time visiting different sites. I don’t want to spend hours everyday checking the home pages of various news sites to get information. I want it to come to me through the 3 or 4 sites I already use on a regular basis.

    I think Thornton was trying to get at the idea of news Web sites being more “of the Web” and less “on the Web.”

    Does that make sense?

  • You’re right, RSS doesn’t lend itself to serendipity. Although with Google News, I often get stories I wouldn’t have gone looking for.

    But Twitter does. So does Delicious (which I forgot to mention…). Neither of these emulate newspapers.

    I guess I should have emphasized the reluctance to spend a lot of time visiting different sites. I don’t want to spend hours everyday checking the home pages of various news sites to get information. I want it to come to me through the 3 or 4 sites I already use on a regular basis.

    I think Thornton was trying to get at the idea of news Web sites being more “of the Web” and less “on the Web.”

    Does that make sense?

  • I think Thornton was picking the flavor-of-the-moment website (Facebook) and anointing it the savior of news. A few years ago, Amazon’s recommendation engine was the answer (remember, Amazoning the News?). Now, it’s social networks. Tomorrow, it will be whatever’s next.

    But to your point, I think actually both of those sites emulate certain things about newspapers: they are edited, and selected by human beings, published to a broad audience and consumed by you and me. I think we get too wrapped up in the superficial look and feel of a site, rather than the kinds of interactions it enables.

    So, why would you suddenly change the NYTimes homepage into a Twitter-like feed? That’s a bad idea. I’m not ashamed to say I unsubscribed to almost all of the Times twitter feeds because it’s a horrible experience.

    Unlike Twitter, the home page is a logically organized, known entity to most every user of the web. It is based on tried-and-true web standards, easy for users to navigate, etc. In other words, it doesn’t “make users think” — at least about the basics of getting around. It may not appeal to you, but if it didn’t appeal to most of our readers, I suspect you’d see web traffic going down, and not up. It may be old school, but there’s nothing about the *interface* of the times or any other news site that isn’t purely “of the web.”

    I don’t think this is about user interface. I think it’s about user interaction. We should be finding are ways to enable the kinds of interactions you’re talking about — and i don’t think that’s accomplished by ripping up our home page (or global posts) and relaunching as TimesBook or something like that.

  • I think Thornton was picking the flavor-of-the-moment website (Facebook) and anointing it the savior of news. A few years ago, Amazon’s recommendation engine was the answer (remember, Amazoning the News?). Now, it’s social networks. Tomorrow, it will be whatever’s next.

    But to your point, I think actually both of those sites emulate certain things about newspapers: they are edited, and selected by human beings, published to a broad audience and consumed by you and me. I think we get too wrapped up in the superficial look and feel of a site, rather than the kinds of interactions it enables.

    So, why would you suddenly change the NYTimes homepage into a Twitter-like feed? That’s a bad idea. I’m not ashamed to say I unsubscribed to almost all of the Times twitter feeds because it’s a horrible experience.

    Unlike Twitter, the home page is a logically organized, known entity to most every user of the web. It is based on tried-and-true web standards, easy for users to navigate, etc. In other words, it doesn’t “make users think” — at least about the basics of getting around. It may not appeal to you, but if it didn’t appeal to most of our readers, I suspect you’d see web traffic going down, and not up. It may be old school, but there’s nothing about the *interface* of the times or any other news site that isn’t purely “of the web.”

    I don’t think this is about user interface. I think it’s about user interaction. We should be finding are ways to enable the kinds of interactions you’re talking about — and i don’t think that’s accomplished by ripping up our home page (or global posts) and relaunching as TimesBook or something like that.

  • You’re right, I got wrapped up in the design, rather than the way the sites work.

    I don’t think any news Web site should look like Twitter. That would be silly. And I subscribe to very few news feeds on Twitter because most just push the RSS and that’s what Google Reader is for. (I have a rant for that, too.)

    Personally, I can’t think of anything that’s going to get me to browse the home page of my local news site. It’s just not the way I consume news.

    But most people aren’t like me.

    So you’re right. The real issue is changing how users interact with a news Web site, and how they can interact with each other through the site.

  • You’re right, I got wrapped up in the design, rather than the way the sites work.

    I don’t think any news Web site should look like Twitter. That would be silly. And I subscribe to very few news feeds on Twitter because most just push the RSS and that’s what Google Reader is for. (I have a rant for that, too.)

    Personally, I can’t think of anything that’s going to get me to browse the home page of my local news site. It’s just not the way I consume news.

    But most people aren’t like me.

    So you’re right. The real issue is changing how users interact with a news Web site, and how they can interact with each other through the site.

  • Conclusion: we’re saying the same thing.

  • Conclusion: we’re saying the same thing.

  • Love how it took so long to figure that out. I should have spotted the discrepency between PT’s vocab and what I was thinking about earlier.

  • Love how it took so long to figure that out. I should have spotted the discrepency between PT’s vocab and what I was thinking about earlier.

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