Overcoming the wall of links on news homepages

walloflinks

Ask yourself this: What should I click on?

Our homepage like most traditional journalism homepages is a wall test of links. Everywhere you look there are similar sized links to stories. It’s hard to make out individual stories to click on unless you really focus.

And guess what? When users can’t find stories to focus on, they bounce from your site. A crowded homepage like this will cause users to flee because they are overwhelmed by our lack of choices.

When you look at the layout of our current homepage, and many other homepages, you can see that meeting internal stakeholder needs (or perceived needs) took precedence over user need.

This means making our current magazine issue perhaps the dominant visual element on our homepage. This also means that every major section has content broken out individually, despite the fact that different sections of the homepage are not updated every day, leading to parts of the homepage to exist in various states of staleness. This can lead to stale content living on the homepage for quite awhile.

The homepage should be a place for the latest news you have and for great evergreen content. When you let your homepage become stale, it discourages would-be frequent users from checking out your site often. You don’t want to discourage frequent users.

Compare these news homepages to social media sites. Every time I log into Twitter and Facebook, I’m getting new content. Twitter and Facebook never feel stale, which encourages people to not only check back daily but several times a day.

Many people say the homepage is dead for news organizations. And in a sense, it is. Search and social are the dominant ways that people find news stories. But that doesn’t mean homepages have no value.

Our homepage may still get 20 percent of our traffic on a given day. The homepage is often for your most dedicated users. These people want to know the latest news that you have.

Meeting user needs is always the right decision. Without happy users, no one is going to be happy for long. The desire to meet internal stakeholder desires first and foremost has led us to a homepage that usually has between 50-100 links to click on.

How is a user supposed to know what is important? How are users supposed to know what is the latest news that they should focus on? When you present a user with too much information, you lack information hierarchy, and you’ll often lose users.

gawker

Compare our homepage with that of Gawker (leaving aside Gawker’s sometimes questionable content). They want you to focus on one story at a time. They want to push the latest news they have done.

Gawker publishes more stories and has more users than us, but they are comfortable with not trying to present every story from every blog they have on their homepage. A simple design is a confident design.

For far too long legacy print publications have lacked confidence online. We must embrace the confidence that online publications have when it comes to user experience design. We must admit that print design does not work on the Web.

Let’s be bold. Let’s be confident. Let’s embrace simple designs that get users into and out of new content quickly.

nyt

The New York Times website is a classic wall of links, and it appears to have been created first and foremost to mimic a print front page. This home page doesn’t make clear either what are the most important stories to focus on right now, nor what the latest stories are either. In fact, the dominant visual element is a house ad for their cooking app.

I’m a digital subscriber to nytimes.com. I like their content quite a bit. I can also say that I almost never use the homepage and instead find most stories I read one nytimes.com through social media. I would make more use of the home page if it had a less print-focused layout that was easier to use and easier to process information with.

There is just too much text in very similar font sizes for me to focus on anything. So I don’t, and I leave.

A recent study from the Engaging News Project found that modern news website designs lead to better reading comprehension and longer time spent on site. Here are their key findings:

  • Unique page views increased by at least 90 percent when participants viewed the contemporary homepage compared to the classic homepage.
  • Recall of details from the articles, although low for all participants, nonetheless increased by at least 50 percent when participants viewed the contemporary homepage compared to the classic homepage.
  • Study participants rated the contemporary site more positively than the classic site.
  • Where the articles appeared on the page affected article recall more consistently than whether people clicked on the article.

This was in a controlled experiment with study participants. The study participants still had to use both sites. For real world websites, I would bet that the results would be more stark, especially for time spent and page views.

When people go to a wall of links homepage, they disengage. There is just too much information to process and too little information hierarchy. If something is important, your design should call it out above other things.

We are working on a complete responsive redesign of Washingtonian.com. It has a simple design that focuses on the latest news first. It’s a design that effortlessly goes from mobile to desktop and in between. I’ll be sharing more about it in the coming weeks and months as a we prepare for launch later this year.