News design is flawed… and smoking is bad for you!

Winner, in my book, of the No Duh Award, is this great interview with Alan Jacobson.

The problem is that, except for me, and a select few, this is news. (In case you hadn’t heard, smoking is bad for you, we invaded Iraq, and Google “launched’ local search).

He’s got some good points, and some bad. Let’s recap, shall we:

Perhaps the most glaring flaw at many Web sites is that they look the same day after day. While a print edition adjusts the layout of its front page to the news of the day, many newspaper home pages do not. They’re stuck with a set template, complains Jacobson, and the daily news is crammed into it — whether this is a day with a huge story (Saddam captured) or a slow news day (the local St. Patrick’s Day parade). Headlines are all the same size, not adjusted to infer news value.

Dabo! We have a winner. I’ve written about the need to change your design before.

I’ll say it again, design is content, if your headline or photo was the same size on Sept. 11, 2001 as it was on Sept. 10, 2001, then you need a new CMS.

Small Initiatives brings up a good point regarding CMSes, if we ask for it, we’ll get it:

CMS vendors and internal site programmers would build variable-template systems if they were asked and paid to do it.

Let’s talk photo play:

The there’s-always-one-photo-on-the-home-page template is just silly when you have days that warrant running three photos. It’s denigrating editors’ news judgment when the only option is to stuff a photo into a locked-size template slot, no matter how important or unimportant a shot may be.

I agree 100 percent, photos are content. If you’ve got a slow word-news day, but a good photo-news day, then put some more photos up there.

And please tell me you’re not confining yourself to just one photo size and shape, are you?

No self-respecting designer or photo editor would accept having one spot, the same size and shape, for a different photo every day. The content of the photo changes, so the shape will have to as well.

Let’s move on to my favorite topic, scrolling…

The ideal home page, he suggests, would be confined to the limits of the size of a computer screen. That’s right, no scrolling. And the same goes for inside or article-level pages.

Sorry, gotta disagree there, vehemently. What is a screenfull on the Web? Is it the resolution or the browser size? It can’t be either, they’re both subject to change.

Print-now-Web designers, please, please, stop saying things like “below the scroll”, that’s a figment of your imagination.

That said, a well-thought-out and well-designed hierarchy of information will tend to put the most important content near the top of the page, and the less-important information toward the bottom.

Come one, say it with me… “Hey hey, ho ho, ‘below the scroll’ has got to go!”

Besides, scroll-wheels make it easy, and studies promote scrolling over paging.

But Chris, you say, with all that information, however will we provide hierarchy. Well, start with the principles of design: color, balance, type, and their brethern. There might be some room for DHTML but…

Jacobson believes that the current generation of bloated news-site home pages will die off as more sites use DHTML techniques to hide content and links under expanding navigation elements that become visible as the user’s mouse is moved over a nav element.

…not if it’s flyouts, please God, not flyouts. If you’ve got to hide information then use a click-based method.

What might be interesting, though, is a home-page design that lets you hide parts of the “index-area” that many front pages have. Couple the Javascript hiding with a cookie, and then presto you have a customized homepage.

There’s more to this good interview, and I’d also recommend Small Initiave’s take on it as well.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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