News site needs new, innovative user interfaces

We can all agree that the Web is a vastly different medium than print.

Which is why I can’t understand why almost every news site tries to emulate the user interface of a newspaper. The mediums are nothing alike, and they each have much different strengths and weaknesses. Why are we still making dynamic Web sites that try to mimic static news print?

A userĀ  interface can be often be the single most important decision in the life of a Web site. News organizations need to take this decision more seriously and need to rethink everything.

I have plenty of “radical” UI concepts in my head. These concepts are only radical to people working at news organizations who seem hell bent on trying to emulate newspapers. Today, I’m going to talk about two of my UI concepts that are considerably different than what news organizations are doing today.

The social news feed

This concept is inspired by Facebook. The Facebook news feed helps users stay up-to-date on their friends, and is the first place most users check when they log in. Every day I find interesting links left by my friends on Facebook, and without the news feed, I would use Facebook far less.

Which directly leads me to why this concept needs to be explored by news organizations. Every news site should be social and allow users to connect with each other. Every day I find content via my friends on Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed and other social networks. Imagine, for instance, if WashingtonPost.com was built around a social networking model.

Instead of being greeted by a front page with stories selected by a bunch of people who I don’t know and who don’t know me, I would be greeted by the content that my select group of friends liked. And my friends could include people who worked at the Post. Every Post employee would be required to be a member of the site (and thus their professional produced content could show up in people’s feeds).

I could follow a photographer’s photos, a writer’s stories and a columnist’s columns. I could also follow my friends blogs, photos, videos and other user generated content. Heck, I could also choose to put the Post’s headlines in my news feed as they come online (or individual sections).

As long as the Post updates its site constantly throughout the day, instead of dumping content all at once, my news feed would be a nice mix of content from the Post and from my friends in the Washington area. The problem, however, with the Post’s Web site is that I’m greeted by the same exact homepage as everyone else.

But we’re not the same. None of us is exactly the same. Our Facebook home pages, however, are entirely unique.

When you think about it, what is at the core of most news organizations? Geography. I read The Washington Post because I live in the Washington region.

I would never sign up for the LA Times Web site. I would only consume content on that site because someone linked me to it, not because it’s a part of my daily routine.

The best way to make a given geographic location come alive on the Web — a niche — is to form a social network that allows people of that geographic area to connect with each other. So, let’s really hammer home what WashingtonPost.com should be like when we log in.

There should be a feed with the latest content, links, etc from my friends and Post headlines (if I choose this last option. I could also say I only want headlines from local news and sports, for instance. Maybe I just want political stories in my feed). This will be a mixture of original content produced by my friends (who might be employees of the Post), links to content that my friends like on the Post Web site and links to content that my friends like from around the Web.

The homepage should also tell me if I have messages from my friends, requests or any other interactions I should check out. It would also display the comics, cross word puzzles and games I want to consume and play on the site. Beyond that, I should get an update on what’s happening in my groups. Let’s call these Post Groups for posterity sake.

These are user generated groups. I live in Silver Spring. There could be a group formed for citizens of Silver Spring to discuss what’s happening in our area, post photos, blog items and add to the overall coverage and understanding of this area. Heck, there could be a group for my apartment building and the street I live on.

There could be groups for local sports teams, PTAs, city councils, etc — whatever really. If the Post wants to be a guide to the Washington area, it has to let the people guide it. These Post Groups would help greatly increase engagement on the Post site.

At its core, Facebook is a tool. At its core, WashingtonPost.com is a news site. There is a reason I check out Facebook way more than WashingtonPost.com. It’s because a tool becomes part of my life and routine, whereas a news site is only something I check when I actively want to consume news from that site.

The desire to consume news from a single source fades in and out of consciousness. Much of the content on a given news site can be consumed elsewhere. There is no direct reason to tie me into a single news site.

There really is only one Facebook (MySpace and Facebook are distinct). There is really only one Twitter (name any other micro blogging site that has taken off like it has). Those sites have got me locked in, but no news site has (some news aggregators have, however).

I would consume far more news content on WashingtonPost.com if the site itself was a tool. I read more news stories from Twitter than I do from WashingtonPost.com. The people I have chosen to follow on Twitter often link to some great content.

It’s content that speaks to me, and the links that show up in my Twitter feed are very useful. After all, I’ve chosen to follow these people for a reason. But Twitter is also a tool that I use and enjoy.

I go Twitter first and foremost because it’s a tool for interacting with people, and I use it for my job. But along the way, links pop up in my Twitter feed. WashingtonPost.com would get far more traffic if it became an indispensable tool that people felt compelled to check multiple times a day.

Along the way, I would surely consume more content for the Post. My Post feed would have content that interests me, group members would be linking to quality Post content and I would be checking around Post.com a lot more because I was already there for other purposes.

Now, this doesn’t mean this is the only way news would be presented on WashingtonPost.com. There would still be a standard looking news site UI for non-members (these people obviously don’t have friends on the site), and many people wouldn’t be into the news feed UI concept (mostly older people that aren’t into social media).

Still, WashingtonPost.com and most news sites could do a better job at the very UI they are trying to master. ESPN.com’s recent redesign was mostly an effort to understand that less is more. It does a better job of displaying content, while confusing people a lot less.

Guess who would love the news feed UI? Precisely the people that news organizations have trouble connecting with — younger generations. Facebook is a part of my daily life. So is Twitter. So is Google Reader (love the recommended items from my friends on Google Reader).

There is no traditional news site that is a part of my daily life. All the sites that are a part of my daily life are tools. They all allow me to connect with people.

News sites are very poor at allowing people to connect with each other and to form social bonds and groups. This must change ASAP.

The other great part of the news feed UI concept is that it doesn’t take daily effort on the part of news organization. It’s dynamically created for each user by the Web site itself.

The world view

GlobalPost just launched today, and I knew before I went there that it had a standard UI. There is nothing that the founders said about the site that lead me to believe that they would be trying something radical or unique when it came to the Web site itself. You can read and hear all about the vision for GlobalPost.com here.

I’m deeply disappointed in this UI. Not because it’s worse than a normal news site UI, but because I really feel like they missed an incredible opportunity to create a very unique UI that it seems to me would jump out to any one who thinks critically about what GlobalPost aspires to be.

The main UI for this site should be a dynamic map or globe of the world (I say main, because there is no reason we can’t have multiple UIs. As RSS becomes more popular, an RSS feed should be thought of as a malleable UI option). As new content is produced from various correspondents, it should pop up on the map with a pin point. People could mouse over this pin point, read a brief about the content (what it’s about, what kind of content, etc). and then decide whether or not to click to consume more.

GlobalPost tries some of these concepts, but it insists on leading with old, outdated UI concepts. There are some map concepts on the site, like here, but they seem more tacked on as a visual gimmick than a re-conceptualizing of the UI. And there is nothing dynamic about their map content

This map/globe concept obviously must be taken further. Let’s say I wanted to learn more about Iraq. I could go to the Middle East and then click on Iraq and have its provinces and cities show up. I could then view content by smaller geographic locations and see where the latest content came from.

Instead of being a UI gimmick, the map can also have layers of data. One would be the base layer with provinces and cities. Another layer would show population breakdowns around the county. Another would show ethic and religious breakdowns of the population around the country. Another would show what kind of industries each area had and so on.

You would think a site like GlobalPost would focus heavily on cartography. How can you really show the true story of a country without good maps with good data? The answer is you can’t.

GlobalPost seems to have a blog UI concept that has many newspaper-qualities to it. This UI fails for anything but written content. GlobalPost has a timeline of key events for some countries, but the UI of the site makes the timelines hard to use.

GlobalPost seems to want to include some encyclopedia content, which is great. I think they should try to include a lot of this kind of content. It should be be a site where people can learn in depth the back story and current story about a nation.

Right now, GlobalPost has rudimentary back story content (far less than, say, Wikipedia). That must change. And using a UI that has a great map/globe will greatly help tell that back story.

Besides the map/globe concept, GlobalPost could have lists of the latest content from each region. Are these simple lists really that much worse than the current GlobalPost design? Also, GlobalPost needs much stronger — and unique — individual pages for each country.

Here is my advice to the new GlobalPost.com:

  • More back story — It’s nice hat you included information about countries, like population, GDP and the other basics, but you need more. GlobalPost should have more information than the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia combined about a given country. Tell the real back story of a country. Make this site a great resource for students and others in need of quality research. When people want to know more about a foreign country, the first place they should think to turn to is GlobalPost.com.
  • Rethink the UI — A quick glance at this site leads me to believe it was made with either WordPress or Drupal. Why? Because it looks like virtually every other news/blog hybrid. The thing is GlobalPost is a pretty unique vision. How many other news organizations — let alone blogs — want to do what you do? It’s a unique site with a unique vision. It deserves a unique UI.
  • Drop the gimmicks — The rudimentary map concepts feel gimmicky. Either use a map/globe metaphor to provide a better user experience or drop the concept all together. Sometimes compromise really means just compromising your whole operation.
  • Breathing room — The timeline of key events is a good idea. I’m not sure, however, why it has to be crammed into such a small place. This poor UI decision is hampering an otherwise good idea. Don’t be afraid to have more than one page template to display content.

The final world

These two UI concepts are radically different? Why? Because they are vastly different news operations. A UI should be tailored to a site’s needs and vision.

The Washington Post wants to think of itself as a guide to everything Washington. That’s why WashingtonPost.com needs to get social and have a news feed ala Facebook.

GlobalPost wants to be a resource for information both past and present about select countries in the world (maybe one day expand to virtually all countries). Well, it needs a UI that is tailored to presenting information about geographic areas. GlobalPost.com screams for a more visual UI than the site has — a UI that could help paint a better picture for users.

Now, each site could have more than one UI. Both could have a standard UI (and the Post would need one for non-members). But both sites really need a much more dynamic, lead UI.

GlobalPost is a 2009 news startup. Why is it so heavily focused on text? That boggles my mind.

It worried me when almost everyone brought on board at GlobalPost was an older, ex-newspaper person. I thought they would need some Web people to shake things up a bit and provide some strong Web guidance. My worries seem justified in the lack of innovation the site currently displays.

Maybe they are just in a beta stage right now, but they need to really re-think things fast. I’m a foreign news junkie, and I’m not sold on GlobalPost.com. That’s a problem.

I haven’t seen or heard much in the news industry that leads me to believe we’ll see radical, innovative UIs anytime soon. Most of the people making the decisions are the old guard. They aren’t Web first people, and they just want to emulate their favorite medium — print — on the Web.

Most consultants are former newspaper people too. We can’t honestly expect these people to come up with UIs that will appeal to younger generations or to come up with UIs that will greatly increase engagement, traffic and time spent on Web sites.

Age is not the core issue, but most news operations are lead by older — mostly male — people, and they develop products to fit their own sensibilities. Some of these people — those who pine for the past — need to retire or get out of the way. They simply don’t have the ideas or the leadership to revolutionize news organizations.

And nothing short of a revolution is going to save most news organizations.