Monday, September 24, 2012

'How's that working out for you?'

David Wright, NPR's director of design, provided a terrific observation about home page design during his session at the Online News Association convention in San Francisco this weekend.

He put up a slide of some typical pages, cluttered with text, photos and ads, and asked what made the layouts such an ugly hodgepodge of elements.

"Ads," responded the audience.

Media companies are making their online welcome mats into big messes to gain more advertising revenue. 

"How's that working out for you?" Wright asked rhetorically. Knowing and embarrassed laughter from the audience provided the answer. Ads aren't exactly paying the bills these days.

The online team at The Orion did a nice job of cleaning up all the duplicated copy and photos on the paper's home page last week, but welcome mat has the same problem Wright was talking about at ONA. The page that greets visitors (the shot above was captured this morning) is ad heavy and information light, and it needs a lot of help.

Two of the three lead items in the top-of-page real estate are ad positions, which tells me as a visitor that ads are the most important thing on the site. It would be great if they were (we could use the revenue), but there is no money changing hands on this screen shot and there hasn't been all fall. My point here, though, isn't that ad sales need to increase. It's that the design of this page--which makes advertising a priority--is sending the wrong message to its audience.

So, as always, some suggestions:

• Have only one premium ad position on the page, the top banner. Price it that way.
• Get rid of the wide ad module at the top of the right column. Push Recent (could it say "Top"?)  Headlines into that space. Think about text-only news items in that space so you can put four or five items there.
• Be more conscious of the large photo module being the actual entry point for this page, the place where visitors' eyes settle first. The picture rotator this morning had two photos from last Wednesday's print newspaper. That fairly screams "Nothing New Here!" Make it a goal to have something fresh there every day (or more than once a day) and work with the photo staff to make that happen. (This is why it's so important for editors to make sure art is being assigned for as many stories as possible.
• Move Today's Events above the columnists. Your goal should be to make this page useful for visitors every day, so the more you can provide information that's immediately useful, the better.
• Figure out if you really need a place for visitors to sign in. (Do you do anything with user-created accounts? Do you even have them?) If you need this function, move it way down the page. People who need it will find it.
• Move the About Us menu item to the far right. I hope your content is more important than who works on the paper.
• Keep working on using modules that use the layout grid without leaving extra white space. Think about creating ad blocks to help you do that (maybe a space for those little square ad buttons on the left side).
• I really like the daily webcast where it is. The Twitter feeds have been a great addition, and anchoring them in the right column was a great idea.
• Think about making the pdf version of the paper a menu item instead of a visual element. That would also help you move up the weather forecast.

I'll have more ideas from the ONA convention in the blog this week. Watch for them!

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