There was a time when news sites were designed to mimic the newspaper that had born them, lest we forget, all columns and headers squeezed into the navigation for every real-life section of the print title.

Recent years have seen a move to a more streamlined, cleaner look for news sites, as seen in the recent redesign of the Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

Now a new report from the Engaging News Project has found that websites with a more “contemporary” design see a significant increase in page views over those with a “classic” design.

 Research background

“We’re always looking for ways news organisations can improve both their business and democratic contributions, and one area we thought might be really important is the design of the website,” Dr. Talia Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, told TheMediaBriefing.

Dr. Stroud added that the idea came about after undergraduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, where the project is based, raised the issue of homepage layout after being asked to give their thoughts on various news sites.

Three separate experiments were carried out between September 2014 and June of this year, which aimed to determine how readers reacted to the same 20 news stories, albeit presented in different ways.

Though the text of the articles was identical, some of the 2,671 study participants viewed them on a site with a classic newsprint layout, while others looked at a page with a contemporary modular, image-based layout.

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An example of the classic site used in the study, above, and the contemporary site, below.

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The contemporary site had at least a 90 per cent increase in unique page views compared to the classic site, in all three of the experiments.

Industry case studies

The appeal of a cleaner, more contemporary layout has not been lost on news outlets.

In April, The Wall Street Journal unveiled its first site redesign in seven years, featuring a less cluttered navigation and a responsive design optimised for desktop, smartphones and tablets.

 And the Guardian’s new website, launched in January, showcased a container-style design whereby content is divided into sections by topic or formats such as image galleries and videos.

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The new Guardian website, above, and how it looked before the redesign, below.

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Of course, in many cases a site redesign is accompanied by other improvements which may also impact on traffic, such as a move to responsive design, better social sharing options or a new app.

However, the look of a site, which arguably creates a better experience for the user, should not be underestimated.

Benefits for media companies

 “The contemporary site had a more image-based and grid-like structure that our study participants enjoyed,” explained Dr. Stroud.

 Meanwhile, digitally native sites such as Vox are leading the trend for image-heavy grid layouts.

 Another benefit of the grid format is that it translates well to card layouts and also adapts well to mobile and tablet viewing, as responsive site design always uses a grid base.

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Cleaner layout = better information retention

People are actually able to recall more details when viewing stories on a more contemporary site, according to the study.

Participants were asked, after they had browsed either the classic or the contemporary site, to write down up to ten articles they could remember.

Then they were asked to write down all the details they could recall from the first two or three articles they had mentioned.

Although the level of article recall were “not particularly high” across the board, it was at least 50 per cent higher for those who viewed the contemporary site.

“I think readers were better able to retain details from the contemporary site’s articles in part because they were more likely to click on the articles,” explained Dr. Stroud.

“Even more than that, however, I think that they were more engaged with the contemporary site.”

Where the articles appeared on the page also affected article recall, with participants better able to remember articles that were more prominently displayed.

The importance of feedback

Participants in the Engaging News Project study also rated the contemporary site more positively than the classic site.

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Dr. Stroud pointed out that “site redesigns require careful planning, as audiences are accustomed to a certain look”.

The Guardian released a beta version of its new site, asking for feedback from readers, four months before it actually went live.

And The New York Times published a column addressing some of the complaints it received following the redesign of nytimes.com in January 2014.

However, the Engaging News Project study clearly demonstrates that site design has an impact on the way readers interact with stories, with Dr. Stroud noting that the research “provides a strong rationale for exploring new homepage layouts”.

Image courtesy of Dean Hochman via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.