Originally published last year, we’re re-publishing this fascinating article ahead of our conference on June 14.
At the recent European Information Architecture Summit in Paris, Oliver Reichenstein, who has done several web design projects for Swiss newspapers, talked about how the traditional layout of the paper was very much wedded to the technology of the time. In the 19th century, if you needed to be able to accommodate sudden changes to layout caused by late breaking news, the easiest way to achieve this with physical type was to have interchangeable blocks of text with common widths. And thus we have the newspaper layout we know and, mostly, still love.
The web design of news is also deeply rooted in the technology of the time, with most major news websites optimised to work well in browsers that were released a few years ago, on desktop-shaped monitors. And most existing content management systems (CMS) are optimised around spitting out chunks of articles of broadly similar length, which are mostly displayed in the browser in broadly similar templates.
There might be the occasional dalliance with a different format, but broadly speaking, an article per page, with a strip of topic-based navigation on top is the de facto standard for delivering news online.
And that may not be enough anymore.
The growth of the smartphone market in the US and the emergence of a range of tablet devices are challenging this orthodoxy of digital news presentation. Next year, Nielsen predicts that smartphone sales will overtake “feature” phone sales, and RBC analyst Mike Abramsky expects smartphone sales to shortly overtake desktop PC sales.
Whilst the iPad may be hogging attention and generating plenty of column inches in the process, in truth it represents not just a market in itself, but also the luxury end of a new class of device. It may have garnered negative reviews, but the Next tablet demonstrated that there are going to be a wide range of consumer options for this type of touchscreen portable technology.
In order to serve a wide range of devices, with differing screensizes and aspect ratios, rather than starting from scratch with a unique app and codebase each time, publishers will most likely ultimately have to develop “one-size-adapts-to-all” systems, relying on open standards like HTML5 and CSS3 to deliver content. And as well as new technologies, a reappraisal of design principles is going to be required.
Leave the design clutter behind
When designing for the browser, news publishers have typically crammed web pages full of as many things as possible. On any given story you’ll find a proliferating number of share buttons, print version icons, advertising formats, most read lists, and links to related stories.
Designing for mobile first’ means getting down to the real atoms of delivering news. And services like Instapaper, or Readability are reminding us that news stories are there to be read without clutter. By concentrating on the pure reading experience, and ditching the bells and whistles that make up so much online furniture, they encourage deeper and more engaged reading.
There simply isn’t room for 15 related story links, a most read panel, and 100 ways to share an article on the screen of a smartphone or small tablet – not to mention advertising. This forces a concentration on what the user is most likely to want to do next after consuming a story. It means carefully thinking about whether uniform global navigation that can take you from any one section to all other possible sections is appropriate. It also means thinking about what are the real interactions you are hoping to encourage from the reader – to share the story, to comment on the story, or to dive deeper into a specific topic?
The rise of the smartphone and the tablet may not be the complete death-knell for the browser-based web, but it will surely herald another transformation in the design of delivering digital news.