Tuesday, May 1, 2007

ABCNEWS.com Bucks The Trend on Their Homepage Redesign and Goes…Shorter?

Over the last couple years, most homepages of news organizations have gotten taller and taller. MSNBC.com just made cosmetic changes to their styles which made the page even taller, while keeping the same design. Here is how a bunch of news sites stack up height-wise:

ABCNEWS.com now is only 721 pixels tall, and if you notice a large percentage of it in the lower corner is dedicated to ad space. Why have the other news websites gotten so tall? Just look at them. There are links and categories and content all over the place. My favorite of them all is NYTimes.com. It easily manages hundreds of links and sprinkles in a lot of multimedia. It also utilizes interesting, simple navigation to easily scan through top stories. Everyone else is adding more and more content and letting people scan to find what they want by [gasp!] scrolling.

Why would ABCNEWS.com buck the trend and become more than three times shorter than the smallest competitor above? No scrolling needed there! The “below the fold” design had long since been abandoned. Why is ABCNEWS going back to it? Wonder no more, because they have a “guide” online letting you know their design rationale. Here are ABCNEWS.com’s reasons for the redesign, in order of priority:

  1. The site is 10 years old and they wanted to mark the occasion

  2. Clear, simple design to best showcase their reporting and clean up the “clutter”

  3. Harness the power of community for people to add to the facts, ask questions and submit video from their cell phones

  4. Easier to watch video on the website with a new video player

What’s really cool about knowing these objectives is that you can map them back directly to the feedback they have solicited for the redesign. While I’m writing this there are 350 comments on the redesign by their users. It’s amazing how much feedback goes to the opposite of their business objective of simplifying the design. So many said the page looks more cluttered AFTER the redesign. This reminds me of the Tufte example of phone books. We can easily scan through the Yellow Pages to get what we want even though there are thousands of data points on each page. I hope the people that redesigned the ABCNEWS.com website don’t get into phone book design.

This may illustrate that ABCNEWS.com didn’t get much feedback from people before going live, or maybe just didn’t care. It seems as if they would uncovered most of this negative feedback very quickly.

Here are a few comments from their website to give you an idea of the overall feedback, typos and all:

I think it's much more dificult to find the articles you want to read. it seems very cramped and cluttered (moreso than the old one!). Videos are nice sometimes but I'd rather read a story. It looks pretty... but it's definitely less helpful than the original =/

Yuck! I don't want videos, I prefer the stories that I can read through quickly.

I don't have attention deficit disorder.

Not as clean cut as the old site!! It seems very cramped and hard to find what I'm looking for!!

Too much
information crammed in a little space. It is difficult to find and read the news
and it has nothing to do with font size! And, please cut the ads! Marielle

The new color scheme is nice but that's about it. There is nothing clear or clean about this site. The page is cluttered and I cannot easily scan the page to read the mornings headlines. There's too much crammed on the homepage not to mention all the flashing pictures and scrolling text...it all results in disappointment. Simplicity is always best and if that's what you were aiming for, I think another try is in order.

I’m confused by this redesign from many standpoints. The last design was not bad and I even blogged about their cool use of “trigger categories” a couple months back. Redesigns don’t happen much these days anymore either. Point-releases seem to be popular and make a lot of sense. ESPN.com does this more than most, almost to a fault. The idea that simple & clean = smaller & less things on screen baffles me as well and is supported by the feedback. If you look at their new design there is still a ton of content, it is just hidden in scrolling categories. I can’t easily winnow anymore. Even the scrolling widgets aren’t very usable, especially the one at the bottom which is really just linear navigation. I wonder if they will go back to the old design like the NBA did with their new basketball design. I think a point-release may be in the works.

UPDATE: It seems as if they deleted the 350 or so negative-slanted comments from their website and started fresh which has made their users even more perturbed. I don't think they actually deleted the page, they just created a similar "How to use this new website" page that seemed like the previous "Guide to the site" page. This is getting ugly.

Check out Adam Messinger's great technology dissection of this on his Zenscope Studio blog.


Adam Messinger said...

I found this a few days back, while I was researching my own post on this train wreck of a redesign. Thanks for a good write-up!

It surprises me that there's been relatively little talk about this on the Web design blogs I sometimes read. I think it's just as important to (tactfully) call out the user-hostile "design crimes" on the Web as it is to ooh and ahh over the best new work. Perhaps the few of us who are talking about it can spur a larger discussion.

In my post, I quoted your remark about the feedback being completely opposite ABC's stated business objectives (with credit and a link back here, naturally). If this isn't okay with you, just let me know and I'll remove your quote from my article.

Michael Grossman said...

Adam, I was also surprised at the lack of noise on this as well. While it seems they tried to follow the Web 2.0 trends here, ABCNEWS.com goes against a bunch of usability trends including the quiet death of the major redesign and letting users winnow your homepage.

I'd like more discussion on this, especially you and others believe where UX Design belongs in a company's hierarchy and at what point does it fall in the product lifecycle.

Thanks for your comment and by all means spread the word. Credit appreciated. :)

Adam Messinger said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog post; I've responded to your remarks about the value of user feedback in a follow-up comment of my own.

As for user experience design in the product life cycle, I think the best way is to have it thoroughly integrated. A company needs professional help and user feedback before and during the initial design (or redesign), and will also often need to tweak things based on further feedback after release.

Sites that iterate fairly rapidly, like Netflix or Amazon, undoubtedly have full-time staff for this. Where they fall in the org chart probably depends on the company, and it doesn't really matter as long as the UX pros are properly engaged in the design process. Sites that redesign more infrequently, like ABC News, could probably do this with contract help.

It's important to note that smaller sites and smaller companies may not be able to afford separate user experience, Web design, and back-end development pros. They should look toward agencies that combine these skills under one roof. If such agencies are still too expensive, there are an increasing number of designers and developers who bring a solid understanding of good UX principles to the table.

Here's an interesting question: if a company doesn't already know what qualifies as good user experience design, how can they assess the skills of the people they hire to create it? I suppose this is the central chicken-or-egg dilemma of any highly technical service industry. The solution probably involves a combo of client education and referrals/testimonials.

Michael Grossman said...

I think they have an idea about how important UX is now that they have integrated these great feedback loops. :)

I'm really looking forward to seeing how this plays out. Watching how long they can keep their homepage 700 pixels tall is a bit like watching fingers in a cracking dam.