Users, Humans and Eyeballs: Designing for News Readers

February 08 Comments Off on Users, Humans and Eyeballs: Designing for News Readers Category: Feed

There is something endlessly frustrating when a news site launches a redesign that is a barely changed rehash of a large media companies older design.

Few, if any, media companies are backing up their design with user experience science. If the final sites are any indication, we have paid little attention to decades of significant study into UX and reader patterns. We shouldn’t be imitating them.

Instead, we try to determine design based on imaginary user stories and A/B testing. The problem is that when we treat humans as users, we forget to account for designing in a way that matches how real people read. When we A/B test there is the potential to find better designs that still aren’t good.

The first value every site design should solve for is readability. The people who come to news sites are there to read. Yet bad design patterns that challenge readability don’t just abound, they multiply.

The last few years have seen an explosion of low-contrast text, despite it being obviously harder to read.

Lines with too many characters also continue to plague websites, making them difficult to scan and forgetting the basic column-width lessons we learned laying out print newspapers.

The undifferentiated grid is another example of a common design pattern, which experienced growing popularity due to ease of scalability for responsive designs. A series of identical boxes makes no sense when compared to how our audience actually looks at the page.

This isn’t to say complexity is impossible, in fact we should consider it required.

  • Abandon the “clean” design and build sites that respect our readers interest in finding the news.

  • We can dig into scanpath theory and find opportunities to present visual complexity to inform the reader.

  • It is to our financial advantage to do so, driving additional engagement and page depth.

Studies exist to tell us how our audiences interact with pages in a general sense, we tend to ignore it. Understanding how our readers eyeballs work in the general sense means building designs informed not by trends or other news orgs, but by science. Much of that science is publicly available, waiting for us to use.

We can also start borrowing scientific methodologies to better understand our individual audiences and, in the process, connect with them. Eyetracking hardware is dropping in price, and is well within the range many news organizations should consider a purchase.

User studies are another way to take basic UX techniques and use them to improve your site and connect with readers. Reach out to the community and invite them to test draft redesigns or tweaks. Designers and developers should be observing and asking questions.

News organizations can give their audience the opportunity to interact with the people who make the site and learn what their preferences are directly. At the same time, your readership can begin to feel like they have a stake in how in building the site.

A nice after-effect? Making readers feel valued by your organization.

The first step is to use real data, the big kind that comes for complex scientific studies and the small kind that comes from talking design with our readers.

With better tools and connections into the community we can start driving better choices to impact how we build the news. The news media can start looking at atomic, delayed, or personalized news with the confidence that we can build whole new workflows for reportage that create better engagement with our audience.

This piece is for Carnival of Journalism.

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This is on us

November 09 Comments Off on This is on us Category: Feed, Fight With Tools

If I see one more ‘this election is Facebook’s fault’ tweet, take or thinkpiece I might spontaneously combust. Could you any more miss the point?

Facebook is a tool for more efficiently deciding what content you see. The problem has never been how we look out on to the world, but what we choose to perceive. This was always the case, Facebook just makes it more visible. There are no excuses. No one walked into the voting booth and accidentally voted for Trump. Even his biggest supporters were aware of the litany of allegations. The debates were the most watched of all time. But people saw what they wanted to see and voted how they wanted to vote.

If we want to look at a media failure, it was in the primaries, it was early 2016. We created momentum around Trump almost by accident and he used it to mobilize. But the last few months have been filled with excellent well-publicized coverage. Trump voters knew who they were voting for because it was impossible not to.

So, if you want to point fingers for the state of the election, we can look to the media, the economics of journalism, the politicians, the advocates, the funders, the fundraisers and, more than all that, the people who voted. Looking there is where you’ll find understanding, motive, interest, fear, avarice, love and hate. That’s the story. Those things aren’t in an algorithm. They aren’t the functions that drive the engineering of social media.

Instead of continually trying to pass the blame to a robot, do useful reporting about the people who voted, the communities they are in, the way they think. This election is on us. Humans. We don’t get to put that on anyone else’s shoulders.

If this is a failure, we failed. If this is an opportunity to rise, we have to grasp it. If resistance is required we must provide it. If watchdogs are needed, we have to pay attention. If someone must speak then only we can do it. There is no Uber for a better humanity. Just us.

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