Monday, October 27, 2014

Vox homepage should be the VoxDeck app

Melissa Bell at Vox wrote about "The home page is dead! We're building one anyway." The homepage is an important topic for news organizaions and most get it wrong in my opinion.

The home page has been obsolete for a long time. The primary way readers come to articles is by Google and social media. Less and less people start at the home page. But obsolete does not mean dead (see McLuhan). For example, you can still buy buggy whips. The home page is not dead, it still has a role to play. It should now be an app.

Most news organizations and in particular newspapers think of the home page as the front page of a newspaper. It is like they are building it for the archives so they can say "This is what happened on this day." These organizations keep trying to fight the last war better. So they get the user experience all wrong.

News sites are getting better because previously every click lead to a static article template page. The news is more than articles. Rich interactive stories and data presentations are common. The most popular story last year (2013) for The New York Times was interactive. So this "JavaScript Journalism" needs to be a consideration in the design.

News organizations produce huge amounts of content. Other sites can have nice navigation and whitespace galore because they are trying to present their limited amount of new content in the best possible way. The design considerations for news are different. 

People want to wade through news sites. So they return often. Sometimes they miss a day. There are topics that don't interest them. Think of a relative who starts reading the paper with the sports section and not the front page. This would speak to personalization. But people rarely want to personalize for themselves. They don't want to be programmers, they want it programmed for them.

Finally, people use many different devices and the experience should carry over from screen to screen. The cloud is not so much about storing data on remote serves as it is syncing the experience from device to device. This is a feature of nearly all popular apps like Dropbox, Evernote, email, etc. News needs to be offline first.

Home Page User Experience

This is what the User Experience should look like for news home page apps.

What is new for me? Show the new stories since my last visit. This does not mean hide the old stories, but highlight what is new since I visited three hours ago or since yesterday or last week. Don't waste my time with headlines I've already read. This is fairly simple to do.

Technical details:.Store in a cookie the timestamp of the last visit. Use a data-timestamp property for each article. Then use a short JavaScript routine to add a highlight class to each story that is new. In a prototype that I did, every story had a gray background except highlighted stories had a white background. Then sync this time stamp into a member's profile for syncing the experience across devices.

Show me the breadth of the news. Readers of newspaper sites are not told how many articles were published in the last 24 hours. In print, you know as soon as you pick up the paper. Show me lots of articles. Curate the order of the articles, not the ones I can see.

Show me that I'm up to date. With the paper you know when you finished reading every section. for many it is an important part of the news experience. So display a progress bar, or the like, showing how much of the news I've scanned and read. Give the experience of an accomplishment. 

Yesterday's news. Contrary to the Rolling Stones' song, people do want yesterday's paper. If readers are on vacation for a week or two, they want to be able to get caught up. Techmeme does this almost perfectly. Click on the date (which is not obvious) on the Techmeme page and roll back time to any previous home page. Every news site home page should have this feature.

Timelines and storylines. Stories do not stand alone. Perhaps I missed the first story in the series. Or I missed the news of the bill that passed or the death of a important figure in the story. Don't make me feel dumb because I didn't read a story ten weeks ago.

Next article, please. I've never understood why news sites make it so difficult to read the next article. With the paper my eyes just scan to the next headline. After I scroll down to the end of an article, please show me the next article. Let me keep scrolling. No need to click. Use the same gesture used to read the article to read the next article.

Read me later. Sometimes I get busy. Let me save an article to read later. Even on a different screen. Storing the unique id of a story is not a difficult technical challenge. It gives the news site another visit which I'm sure the business people will love.

The mosaic of news.  This all speaks to a layout of columns of articles like tweets in TweetDeck. For most newspapers there would be a column for each of the sections like Sports. If a reader frequently read a columnist or blogger, the personalization could add this as a new column. A list of articles could be filter by section, blog, author or any other metadata. Or even a search.

Most of the articles in a newspaper could be displayed on one page. Think of it as a single page web app for news. I called my concept app PostDeck. For Vox it could be VoxDeck. Other newspapers would be TimesDeck or TodayDeck. VoxDeck could even bring in a column from SB Nation and other Vox media.

Apps as news. Readers expect more than articles. Weather is a prime example. Columns don't have to be an index of articles. A column could be the weather app. Or breaking news app. Or twitter stream. Or election results. Or feedback. Or most frequently read. Or it could be a data driven story that has a long life.

Ads as news. Ads are broken on the web compared to print. I can clip an ad or coupon from the paper. I can turn back a page and re-read an ad. I know that every Sunday has my electronics flyer. Contrary to the common view, people want ads, not the intrusion. Put ads in a column, let people scroll through them. Make them searchable. Read them later. Make them social with comments. Challenge ad agencies to make ad apps for columns. Lots of room for innovation for the poor experience we get now. Just like in the paper make ads first class citizen with articles and apps.

Satisfy active readers. I don't follow baseball. As an active reader, let me customize the columns so I get hockey news but turn off baseball. Others might want all the stats of a live game as an app. Let me drag and drop the order of the columns. Let active readers customize and then feature their customization in promoting this news app. 

Long live the news home page app

Home pages for news sites have a lot of life left in them. They just should be considered as news apps and we'll see a renaissance for news home pages. 

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