I’ve made a new thing, Today’s Guardian, a website that features today’s edition of the Guardian (or the Observer on Sundays). Hopefully it’s as easy to browse through today’s newspaper as it would be with the print edition. It’s made using the Guardian’s Content API. Read on for the thoughts behind it…
I’ve blogged before about my dissatisfaction with news sources (eg, 1, 2), and earlier in the year I realised that one of the major problems online was delivery of text-based news. There was no online news source that I could browse and read as easily as I could a print newspaper.
I identified three main issues that a better online news-reading solution should address:
By friction I mean any events that take place before you start reading a news article, which is the thing we want to do. These events could be physical actions or decisions you have to make.
Let’s assume you have a newspaper in front of you, or you have a news website open in your browser. What are the points of pre-reading friction?
With a newspaper there’s almost no friction involved with the articles on the front page. Without thinking about it your eyes will drift across the page and might settle on an article and begin reading. You will, at some level, have to make a decision about whether to pause and read something, but it’s a decision with few consequences — you know you can stop reading the article at any point without investing much more physical effort or decision-making, at least up to point at which the article continues on another page.
The next point of friction is when you’ve exhausted the front page and you must decide whether to continue. While the earlier decisions about whether to read an article had few consequences, the consequence of this decision is slightly greater: you will have to turn the page (either to page two, a random internal page, the back page, or to another section).
Turning the page is possibly the greatest point of friction we’ll discuss — turning a page is a larger physical action than clicking a link on a web page, for example. If you’ve casually picked up a newspaper you might not pass this point — it’s enough friction to make you put the paper down. But it is, nevertheless, a simple decision: yes or no?
If you choose “yes”, the rewards are relatively large: you will have several articles to choose from, all requiring almost no further friction to begin reading. So if you do turn the page, we’re simply back to the point of making the very small decisions about which article to read next, if any.
Initially there is very little friction — the pages are almost designed to be friction-free. It’s easy to take in much of the initial content without deciding whether to invest any effort. Your eyes skate over the small images, the headlines and the explanatory blurbs.
It could be that one article grabs you and you’ll eagerly click the article without even thinking. That’s pretty good; little decision-making has to happen there.
But otherwise you now must decide which of the large number of articles you want to read. This is very different to a newspaper front page on which we have a small number of articles but can start reading any of them immediately. Online we have many articles but can’t start reading any of them without performing an action.
(When discussing newspapers I have in mind the “quality” press here, and I’m also ignoring the teasers they often litter around the front page — I tend to see these as adverts for the potential purchaser, rather than the equivalent of “links” to content inside for the post-purchase reader. It’s very rare I’d read a teaser and turn immediately to the relevant page to read the article.)
This decision, about which headline to click on the news website, is a tricky one, with a lot of potential friction involved. If we click the link we’ll have to wait for the next page to load and, once we’ve read the article, we must perform another action to get back to the front page, assuming we want to continue reading — another decision!
With every single article we must weigh up how much we want to read it, based on a headline and maybe some blurb, with the effort involved. And if we decide to read the article and then regret our decision, we still have to expend the same effort: click the link, then return to the front page. For every story.
So, with a newspaper the biggest points of friction are turning the pages — the paper is most likely to lose us once we’ve exhausted a spread. And this decision is a little gamble, the paper promising us that there will be something worth reading if we turn the page. But we don’t know what will be there. So, even if it’s a paper we wouldn’t normally read, that we perhaps picked up in a cafe or on a train, this hope, that there will be something worth reading, may be enough to make us turn the page. Between these page-turning points of large decision there is very little friction when it comes to deciding what to read. Once the page is turned, it’s easy. Newspaper stories come in small, almost friction-free groups.
But with online news websites, every single article has a point of friction associated with it. Does that headline make us think the article will be worth a couple of clicks and a momentary wait? And once we’ve exhausted the front page we must decide where to go next. This is different to the simple “Shall I turn the newspaper page?” decision, with its two options and its unknown prize. We must now decide which article to visit, if any, from the large choice on offer. When we click one, we know what we’re going to get; there’s no unknown prize. And after reading it we’re back to the start, with the same decision to be made.
Most news websites are exactly the same from this point of view. It’s as if the front page of a print newspaper contained only a bunch of small pictures and headlines, rather than the beginnings of stories.
(Some newspapers’ front pages might feature nothing but one big picture, which it’s tempting to compare to a website splash screen but, given the different purchasing and consumption patterns of the two media — a newspaper must attract a purchaser before it can be read — it’s not a useful comparison in this context.)
Are there any news website front pages which are more like those of newspapers? That display big chunks of the text of the most important stories, rather than dozens of headlines and blurbs? I’d love to see some sites that are different.
By readability I mean how easy it is to read an article. There are many design (and editorial and technical and marketing…) decisions that affect readability. With most news sites it feels that these decisions are made in favour of the website’s owners rather its readers. Can the reading experience be better if we think about the design from the point of view of an individual reader?
Advertising, for example, does not make an article more readable. Obviously, they’re currently essential for sites run by commercial organisations that require this kind of income, but they don’t help readers in any way. They increase the loading time of pages and they’re an irrelevant distraction from the article you’ve arrived to read. Even if they’re not animated, making noises, or floating in front of the text of the article.
Navigation can also get in the way. Taking an article that’s closest to hand right now, this one (pictured below) from the New York Times, it doesn’t start until more than half-way down the screen if I’m using my laptop, thanks to a combination of advertising and around seven levels of navigation and orientation devices. And that’s just the article’s title. The first paragraph is the only part of the article body that I can read without performing another action, scrolling.
Navigation also includes all the stuff around most news articles: links to print, email, share, recommend, Twitter, etc; links to other services the site offers; links to related third-party sites; links to related articles; links to unrelated articles; in-house adverts for books, jobs, etc. All of this is clutter, some of which is conceivably relevant, but all of it distracting from the page’s main purpose: reading an article.
User comments on news sites aren’t necessarily distracting — they generally appear below an article — but like everything else they add to the loading times and slightly detract from the focus of the page. Are they worth it? Personally, I think not. They rarely foster “community” on major news websites and the few comments that add to one’s understanding of an article will be lost among the howling majority.
Readability is perhaps most reduced by sites that split articles over several pages, such as the New Yorker or Wired magazine. There’s no way in which this is anything but a hindrance to the user’s objective: reading.
The tool coincidentally called Readability is a partial solution to some of these problems, allowing you to read any web page in a clutter-free format that’s simply but readably styled. The new Safari Reader feature of Apple’s web browser replicates this functionality. It seems surprising that one large company (Apple) recognises that other companies (owners of websites) are acting against the interests of their customers and has decided to create a tool to solve these problems.
It’s a shame that such tools are even necessary. If you were creating a site whose purpose is to provide articles to read, wouldn’t you want to make it perform that task really well? Make the articles readable? Rather than add features that degrade this performance? (I know, you cynics; these sites’ fundamental purpose isn’t to provide the news, but to make money for shareholders or the company, but I’m being idealistic.)
The third and final issue isn’t crucial for a news website as a whole, but it’s something I miss when going to read the news on one. I wrote about the concept of finishability a while ago, but I’ll go over it again in this context.
When I read a newspaper I’m holding a coherent package of news. “Here,” it says, “is what you should know today.” Once I’ve read it — or, at least, flicked through it — I know I’m up to date. I don’t need to read anything until tomorrow’s newspaper, which will catch me up with everything that happened in the intervening time. And while I’m reading the paper I know how much there is remaining — the pages in my right hand — and I know when I’m done.
This is very much not the case with a news website. There is no sense of an ending. There is no way I can be sure I’ve at least decided whether to read “everything”. There is, on most websites, no way I can be sure I’ve seen all that’s been published since I last visited.
This is fine if you visit frequently, or rarely, or sporadically. If you just want a dose of what’s happening “nowish”, news websites are designed to show you that. But if you want the equivalent of a newspaper — “Here is what you should know today” — you’ve gone to the wrong place. Not everyone does want this, many people just want “nowish”, but if and when you do want something else, there’s nowhere to go online, no daily newspaper equivalent.
OK, there are a few options. The Guardian publishes a list of articles in today’s paper, although it’s not very friendly and couldn’t be more friction-heavy. The digital editions of newspapers at NewspaperDirect are literally the closest thing to print newspapers but I doubt this is an ideal solution for reading the content online (I haven’t tried them).
The Guardian’s iPhone app is rather nice in many ways, but it doesn’t score highly on the finishability front. I often feel lost within it, and I have no sense of how much there is left to read. Have I seen all of the “UK News” articles? Were the ones I did see the most important? Have I missed any sections out?
An old criticism of newspapers, old enough to pre-date the web, is that they’re arbitrary amounts of news. Every day there’s just enough news to fill the newspaper, nothing more, nothing less. This is true, but unless you have the time and facility to read about everything that happened in the world in the past 24 hours, you’ll always have to stop reading somewhere. Whether it’s because you’ve got to the last page, you’ve got bored clicking round the website, or you’ve run out of time. Whatever the medium, you’re only ever reading about a subset of events.
What I get with a newspaper’s subset of events is a coherent package. If I have faith in the priorities of a newspaper’s editors then I get a sense I’ve read everything that’s most important today. I won’t have missed a chunk of important news because I forgot to click a link to a particular section of a website, or because I meant to go back and read something else but got distracted. I’ve worked my way through, from start to finish, and read “today”.
Of course, I often disagree with the priorities of a newspaper’s editors. Less so with my paper of choice, the Guardian, but still frequently. However, tackling that is a bigger, harder, more complicated issue. And right now the least bad solution is to rely on people who have experience, some of whose views I agree with, to choose what counts as news today. An alternative might be to read what’s popular but I don’t want my sole knowledge of the world events to be determined by what’s being sent round on email.
So that’s the thinking behind my Today’s Guardian website.
I wanted something with reduced friction. There should be as few difficult decisions as possible, nothing harder than “shall I turn the page?”. I wanted to avoid having to make a big decision before reading an article. It should be as quick and effortless as possible, as close to how easy it is to start reading an article in a newspaper.
This meant, for me, ditching any kind of conventional news website front page, or contents page. No lists of headlines, no decisions about which article to visit. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, for a news website the front page is a single story. Ideally this is the most important news of the day, although sometimes it’s the newspaper’s “other” front page item — it’s based on the order of articles here. Having a single story on the front page is terrible if a site wants to maximise page views and advertising etc. You might see that one article, think it’s boring, and go elsewhere. But that’s not my concern. I’m trying to make a site that makes it easy to read a newspaper, not support an entire company.
Reducing friction is the toughest of these three issues. There must be many possible design and technical solutions to improve the standard way of providing news to read online.
I also wanted something with high readability. No clutter around the articles, as little navigation as possible, no comments, no distractions (aside from the Guardian’s ads which should appear soon and are a condition of using their API). Freed from the usual corporate constraints, this is very easy to do.
Finally, I wanted finishability. I wanted to be able to read today’s news, know I’d read it all, and that I’m done until tomorrow. Again, this is not too difficult if you’re willing to accept that the contents of the print newspaper is a reasonable solution.
Although the finished site looks nothing like a newspaper I think it has more in common with newspapers’ best features than most news websites do. The sense of browsing quickly through stories and reading the ones that catch your eye, feels similar.
While I’ve had something like this in mind for a year or more, some of the ideas have probably been confirmed in recent months by the arrival of the iPad and apps like BERG’s Popular Science+ and Wired’s, both of which have a similar structure — articles next to each other horizontally. As I was building the site it felt like I was trying to make a website that was as easy to use as an iPad app.
Having said that, the site isn’t currently optimised for the iPad, iPhone or other mobile devices; I hope to do that over the next week or so.
There are probably many ways to achieve these three goals, of improving friction, readability and finishability; Today’s Guardian is one attempt. If you have any comments about the site or the ideas, please post a comment below or email me.
UPDATE: A week later, and I’ve posted another piece about common feature requests. (16 June 2010)
UPDATE 3: I made some small improvements to the site. Read more. (16 June 2011)