Amazon’s website won’t win any design awards but its UX does its job well – it facilitates your journey to the checkout. In contrast, newspaper websites have a long way to go – many of them still look like the front pages of their respective print editions.
In the age of the pixel display, which offers up enormous potential when it comes to how content is displayed, and the age of the internet, where audiences are comprised of a far wider group of people than the ones that buy your print newspaper, is there any need for newspaper homepages to still so closely resemble their print equivalents?
Alana Coates, design analyst for digital agency Wilson Fletcher and ex-digital news editor for The Montreal Gazette, tells TheMediaBriefing, newspaper websites are still shackled by their pint past:
“There’s a lot of studies [that have been] done about the news habits of different age groups, and it’s safe to say there’s a really big difference between generations and how they read and consume news.”
“I think if you have a situation where the audience of most of the major newspapers still expects the news sites to look like a newspaper and expect things to be in certain places, and these are the people that publishers are making their money from, then there will be powerful people in the organisations who have this aversion to change.”
“If you read the Telegraph in print, and you enjoy it, you would probably want that kind of positive experience to carry over to digital, especially if you were paying. Paying enhances those kind of expectations in a way.”
Subscription goal orienting
But the majority of people landing on the Telegraph's homepage won’t be paying subscribers, given its soft paywall that allows access to a number of articles for free before needing to sign up.
And sites like the Telegraph trying to drive subscriptions represent a problem a lot of the news sites have, says Coates – they don’t communicate their goals properly.
On any Amazon product page, for example, you have both a large picture section allowing you to see the product in detail, and a large, highlighted “Add to Basket” button, that apart from the “Sign in” button is the only item on the page with that particular shade of yellow.
On news websites trying to drive subscriptions, however, the goals are much less subtle.
-- The Times:
-- Financial Times:
-- The Telegraph:
-- The Sun:
In contrast, The Sun does very well on this front, with the majority of the homepage pointing in some way to a subscription to Sun+:
“It really comes down to redefining the problem – what are we actually trying to solve here with a newspaper website? I'm not sure the people in charge are asking enough of these fundamental questions, because strategy and UX follows from that.”
“From a persuasion point of view, having a clear proposition that's simple and communicating that is key to have someone actually buy something.”
“You see a lot of experimenting on different ways to see newspaper subscriptions. Having a banner ad, and then having the rest of the page essentially the same is kind of only half doing it, really.”
Obviously simply plastering homepages with "Subscribe here" ads won't do the trick, and perhaps some will think The Sun's approach is too much, but it's arguably gone about things in a cleverer way than others.
Coates notes that unbundled digital experiments like UsVsTh3m, some of the NYT’s apps, and The Telegraph’s Project Babb are evidence that publishers are willing to take risks with UX design on side-projects that they’re not willing to take on their main homepage.
“None of those sites have a homepage. Quartz was the major influencer here to do away with the homepage and design totally mobile-first. That's pretty revolutionary and other publishers are taking baby steps towards moving there. Those kind of products are really exciting and they're becoming successful so maybe eventually we'll start to see some of those UI elements in homepages.”
It wouldn’t be right to talk about website UX without mentioning the Guardian’s beta site, which is a welcome improvement on the old edition for some readers, but others have complained that the white space and lack of information density are big turn-offs they can’t get used to.
And that white space, while pleasing to some (as it’s a step towards the pleasurable, ad-free reading experience you can find on sites like Medium) has started to be sacrificed for uglier full-page “skin” advertising that circles content:
Which brings us to the main reason some sites still design their homepages like the front page of a newspaper – a reliance on advertising.
That lovely white space on the Guardian won’t be entirely cannibalised for ads, but you can expect to see more and more of it taken up with more intrusive forms of advertising.
The same can be said for other websites, too, and the ones who have subscription strategies still need a way of monetising the majority of uniques they receive from non-subscribers coming in through social media or taking advantage of the “X free articles a month” policies.
That means ads, which in turn means designing your website around the economics of online advertising, which in turn narrows the design and UX possibilities your teams can work with.
And the irony is, of course, the online display advertising ecosystem is a system that is designed to get users clicking away from your site…
Image via Andy Mangold used under a Creative Commons license.