One dimensional news

I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up about my Today’s Guardian and its accompanying blog post, looking at why it’s still not an ideal solution for reading an online newspaper. Before I managed to write that the Guardian’s iPad edition came out, which is well worth a discussion of its own. But first, a look at the problems my Today’s Guardian doesn’t solve.

For months after finishing Today’s Guardian I hardly used it. I realised that it wasn’t just technical and design issues that were stopping me from reading a newspaper online; it was also an issue of time. I simply couldn’t find the time to read a newspaper every day.

Since then I’ve engineered a novel solution which has allowed me to read a good chunk of each day’s paper. I’ve called this “getting up earlier.”

Today's Guardian

As a result I’ve now had a few months of using my own interface (usually on an iPad) and, in general, I’m quite pleased. It is, as I hoped, simple and quick, and I don’t feel lost in it. The design largely satisfies the criteria I identified last year of Friction, Readability and Finishability. It’s not perfect — there are occasional glitches and even crashes — but I can happily use it every day.

A couple of the most specific annoyances are down to the Guardian’s API (which is, otherwise, a wonderful resource that I don’t want to take for granted). First, some of the content isn’t available through the API and my interface can only provide a link to read it on the Guardian’s site. Often this is too much Friction for me to bother with, so there are many articles (and all the letters) that I never read.

Second, I could never work out how to put the articles in order using the API. Although the API did add support to indicate which page of the print edition an article appears on, this data often seemed to be missing, and so wasn’t much use for my needs. So I’m still scraping this list of articles which often has a bunch of new or duplicate articles lumped together at the end of the main section. But these are essentially technical or political problems, rather than design issues.

The biggest design issue with Today’s Guardian is, I think, that it’s no fun.

I have created an efficient way to read the day’s newspaper on a screen. And it works for that. But it’s not pleasurable or especially delightful.


I think there are two big design flaws with online news, including Today’s Guardian, compared to the experience of reading news in print. The first is to do with the templated nature of websites and the second is about the one-article-per-page reading experience.

Most text-heavy websites, such as news sites and weblogs, are templated, read-only front-ends to databases. An article’s page may have a nice enough design, and feature relevant contextual information, but there’s rarely any evidence that a human has tried to make that particular article look good, or tailor the article’s layout according to its own requirements.

The news — data — has been squirted directly from a big computer through a pleasant-but-repetitive-template onto your screen. All articles are treated as broadly equal, with only peripheral changes such as titles, byline photos, etc.

Contrast this to a print newspaper. There will be ground rules — standard grids, typefaces, colours, advert sizes, etc. — but the human touch is still required and evident. Someone must work out how to fit articles on the pages, what size photos they should have, and how to make it all look good and read well. Unlike layout on templated web pages, someone has tried to make each article, and collection of articles, work as well as possible. You could say this comes from the medium’s constraints, the limited space available, compared to the unlimited space present online.

The templated automation of digital news is, in one way, a benefit. If you can pump text into a standard format there’s less need for designers to tailor and tweak every article. It cheapens and speeds up processes. But it does make for a bland and repetitive experience, particularly if you’re reading a whole newspaper’s worth of news, one article after the other.

It would be great if the design of news, within a single website, could vary more, and reflect the needs and character of each article. If each site had a larger variety of standard templates, this would create some variety. Done badly this could confuse users. With digital news the layout is not only presenting the text but also the interface. While in print the interface — turning sheets of paper — doesn’t change, no matter how different the design of articles gets. Varying the templates of digital articles too dramatically could create interest at the expense of usability. But still, I think there’s something worth exploring here.

Guardian: "From the blogs: Hunkering down"A Guardian spread from 2005

The second design flaw that online news has is probably harder to tackle. It’s a result of the fundamental structure of the digital reading experience.

Paper newspapers have the benefit of size and resolution. They can, for example, devote a double-page spread to a single theme — a politician resigning or a regime falling — and can arrange several articles across the two pages. It’s easy to take the whole in at a glance. You can tell which article is the overview, which are the eyewitness reports, which provides background material. The layout — the arrangement of several complete articles — is two-dimensional. While we (usually) read through each individual article serially, from start to finish, one-dimensionally, the presentation of the articles is a series of two-dimensional views.

With digital content, we’re restricted to seeing a single article at a time. We have the reasonable convention of one article per page. And not only that, but a page can only display a small part of an article at a time. As we one-dimensionally read a single article we must scroll our little window down its length. But, more than that, in an application such as Today’s Guardian, or any site that relies on “next/previous” links, we view the entire collection of articles in one-dimension. We move from one article to the next with no overall view of how some of them fit together.

Print’s facility to collect different aspects and views of a single theme together on a double-page spread, or even across several, feels important for newspapers. It provides perspective, flow and pacing. But it’s entirely lost in the one-dimensional experience of reading digital news. The plod from one article to the next, to the next, to the next, coupled with the bland similarity of standard templates, creates a lack of variety of pace and structure. Again, digital news often feels like the content of a database squirted at our screens, rather than something a human has crafted.

I don’t know what possible solutions there could be to this but, again, it feels like an avenue worth exploring in order to recover some of the interest, and even delight, that is lost in the move from paper to digital.

Having been so critical, of both my own website and digital news in general, next time I’ll take a more positive look at the Guardian’s iPad edition.

Comments

  • I really enjoy ‘Today’s Guardian’ and use it regularly (when I get up early)! Thanks for creating it - it’s a great application.

    You criticisms are very interesting. With relation the layout issue, I came across this jquery library that could go some way to improving the experience:

    http://larsjung.de/fracs/

    The demo shows a 4 way scrolling option:

    http://larsjung.de/fracs/demo/

    So if you feel like getting up _really_ early every day there may be possibilities for improving the experience further!

  • Thanks Tom, that’s an interesting library!

  • The first point is interesting - the tension between efficiency (in a good way) and bespoke design - I don’t think it’s something that anyone has cracked, particularly. But you’re right that there has to be some kind of balance/middle way between the two.

    The second point feels like something that might be solved with more descriptive links? So you could have any number of articles, but they’re linked not just by ‘previous’ and ‘next’ but some way of describing their relationship to each other…and maybe to a bigger concept of the story overall. It’s something we’ve been looking at in news at the Beeb. And potentially then, there could be some interesting ways of presenting & interacting with a set of articles, based on a greater knowledge of how they fit together - because in the print world, the fitting together isn’t always just one of visual design, it suggests meaning too.

  • Totally agree with the bit about digital reading only allow one ‘take’ of the story (most the what - not the why)

    this years news year has been very busy - but particularly with stories that draw on and refer to background content that is well shown on paper and poorly shown online

24 Oct 2011 at Twitter

  • 08:50am: @Jonathan_Fry Thanks! The diary text is from Project Gutenberg, the same as I use on http://t.co/E6IVmk4h
  • 10:50am: I wrote a look back at my Today’s Guardian site, and the fundamental design problems it shares with all digital news: http://t.co/LxaZR8V3
  • 11:11am: @tobybarnes I never got the hang of Flipboard... too many things I wasn’t interested in or had seen elsewhere. Maybe I should try again?
  • 11:12am: @tobybarnes Also I’m coming from the perspective of wanting to read lots of news, rather than browsing, which seems to be Flipboard’s forté.
  • 05:25pm: At least the police presence on Finsbury Square might stop all the cyclists going the wrong way, or on the pavement, on its south side.
  • 07:11pm: @ianbetteridge That is quite special isn't it. I always thought drumming circles were a terrible thing, only enjoyed by their participants.
  • 08:34pm: I'm enjoying Thom Yorke's 6Mix. That's all. http://t.co/bxf34W6J

24 Oct 2011 in Links