The New York Times unveiled a redesigned website today, marking the first major shakeup to nytimes.com since 2006.
Though none of the changes The Times made is any sort of revolution when it comes to web design, all three of the experts we spoke with this morning generally praised the redesigned site for its increased white space and better readability.
“Their stated goal was to make it easier to read through, and I feel they’ve done that,” said Slate editor David Plotz, whose website underwent a redesign of its own this past fall. “It’s a very comfortable, light experience that I think as a reader is very soothing.”
Here are the three biggest of the many tweaks The Times made to create that feeling:
1. The right rail is gone.
One of the most noticeable and important changes The Times made was getting rid of the so-called “right rail,” the column of the page that was once dedicated to content like ads, recommended stories, and other content we could loosely define as “stuff that isn’t what the reader clicked on the story to see.”
Look at how this one story about unemployment benefits appeared when I clicked on it last night, and take note of how boxed in the actual text of the story feels amid all those ads, links, and NYT promotions:
And when you scrolled down? Just some more clutter is all. Notice how the text of the story looks like a river running through two mountains of stuff you’re not trying to look at:
Here’s what that same story looks like today. Up top, the photo juts into the right portion of the page, making it clear that the column isn’t just for junk anymore. This gives you the feeling of looking at a bigger space:
“My favourite thing about the redesign is the breaking of the right column,” said Hard Candy Shell CEO Kevin Kearney, who worked on The Times last redesign in 2006 and has since worked on similar overhauls at The New York Post, Gawker, and Slate. “This is a thing we’ll see across a lot of sites. That right rail is really tough for users because they see it as the junk side.”
2. They got rid of a bunch of stuff.
The old web site would promote a ton of other New York Times content, right up against the story you were reading. The Times has since gotten rid of some of those promotions, eliminating the “what’s popular now” tab, merging “multimedia” with “related stories,” and moving “recommended for you” and “most emailed” toward the bottom of the page. The result is that you can unbuckle your belt, take a deep breath, and enjoy the luxury of some wide open white spaces further down the page.
In getting rid of these bells and whistles, Plotz says The Times is responding to the fact that it now takes in more money from subscription fees than advertisements, incentivizing it to optimise the overall user experience at the expensive of prominently displayed promotions.
“If you’re losing ad revenue, but massively increasing user saturation, and they’re buying more subscriptions, then you’ve made a great deal,” he said.
3. “The Burger Bar” and the decreased role of sections.
The Times chose to leave its homepage largely unchanged, with two major exceptions: It stopped putting every hyperlink in blue like it’s still 1996, and it vastly decreased the prominence of its traditional newspaper sections.
This decision to remove the Sections portion of the left-hand side of the page stems from the fact that people consume their news digitally far more often than they do via print. So instead of thumbing through the Politics section of a newspaper, they’re now making their choices based on more specific interests and the recommendations they encounter on social media.
Instead, the new site has moved its 10 most important sections to a bar on the top of the page, with the rest being found under a three-lined “burger bar” in the top left-hand corner. The burger bar resembles the way menus are often structured on mobile phones, and it’s also present on The Times’ new article pages.
Clicking the burger bar opens up a sections menu on the left-hand column of the page that is otherwise left empty. From there, users can find subsections like books, dance, and health:
Michal Pasternak, chief experience officer at the digital design and marketing firm Huge, applauded The Times’ overall effort, but said the lack of major changes on the homepage was a missed opportunity.
“I actually use the homepage a lot, so it feels a little too safe, and not particularly exciting,” she said. “I would have liked to see a little more experimentation there.”
This criticism was echoed by Kearney, who feels that in the digital age, even The Times’ reduced focused on its different sections is too much. And instead of making big changes every seven years, he says The Times should be making tweaks and trying new things on an ongoing basis.
“My least favourite part is that the homepage hasn’t changed sine 2006,” Kearney said. “I know they’re really used to it and change is hard, but there’s been problems with it for a while now. There are just too many different ways to get into the same content on the homepage, and I was expecting them to take a stab at approaching that.”
On the whole, though, Kearney, Pasternak, and Plotz were all in agreement that The New York Times web page is a more readable and better experience than it was prior to its redesign. And for a brand with a storied tradition and an older, less tech-savvy reader base, perhaps taking smaller steps was the best approach.
“This one really feels more like an evolution than a revolution,” Pasternak said. “For a site with that much traffic, and that many readers, this feels like the right move.”
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