Digital Publishing: User (Not) Friendly

By: Rob Tornoe

Digital Publishing: User (Not) Friendly
Considering most media companies intend their websites to serve a large audience of readers, it’s surprising that we’re at the dawn of 2016 and still dealing with issues like bad design, difficult readability and a frustrating lack of usability.

Unfortunate as it is, news organizations have become synonymous with bad Web design. Most TV news stations have templates filled with more wingdings than a Geocities website circa 1996. Newspapers don’t do much better, packing their stories with so many callbacks, videos and related links that at times is seems they want readers anywhere except the story they’ve chosen to read.

It’s even worse on mobile, where a smaller screen leads to a diminishing financial return, causing publishers to load their pages with pop-ups, fly-outs and video ads that often inhibit the readers ability to consume a story.

“Even today I think our pages and our experience have such a close lineage to print,” said Marc Lavallee, the editor of interactive news at The New York Times. “There’s this tendency just to put a bunch of (stuff) on the page.”

Lost in the great chase of buzz words like “engagement” is the core mission of all media companies (and the hoards of storytellers they employ): How to get readers to retain the knowledge they’ve learned from reading their stories.

In his day job at the Washington Post, product manager Alex Remington works with a team to develop everything from interactive graphics to games and quizzes for the newspaper’s website. But Remington, who prior to his job at the Post earned a Master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, took advantage of a fellowship from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to study how news organizations can design stories to create a more memorable experience among their readers.

So Remington, with the help of University of Missouri School of Journalism professor Paul Bolls, designed a study to offer scientific evidence how publishers can tailor their content to truly engage their readers. Basically, Remington took 80 news readers, hooked them up to electrodes and showed them four stories on mobile, desktop and tablet—some on clean, “brain friendly” templates, and some on cluttered, “brain unfriendly” templates.

And what did Remington discover?

“Not surprisingly, we discovered cleaner design is better and readers like it better,” he said. “A lot of what the study did was validate the instincts we all already have.”

The practical takeaway is readers thought the “brain friendly” version of the stories were more interesting, were easier to read and made them want to find out more about the topic. According to Remington, this is concrete empirical evidence of something most designers have been telling their bosses for years—better-designed stories will increase engagement with readers.

Remington’s study points to three main changes that developers at media companies can make to significantly improve a reader’s experience on their website:

Format the text of the story into shorter paragraphs.

Highlight important story faces and terms.

Offer stories on clean, uncluttered Web pages.

“By making these small changes, organizations can help their readers be more engaged and more informed,” Remington said, noting that it also increases the likelihood they’ll revisit a website they’re satisfied with again and again.

So why are so many news websites dragging their feet when it comes to adapting to a simpler Web template?

According to Remington, a large part of the problem is the fact that digital design is not as evolved as print design, which offers the ability to communicate many different levels of context and doesn’t rely so heavily on templates.

“The newspaper’s very layout is in many ways geared toward helping the reader understand very quickly, including even the inverted pyramid,” Heather Billings, a designer and developer at the Chicago Tribune, told Remington. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate online.”

But the biggest obstacle designers face in simplifying their story pages is monetization. As Remington himself admits, at most news organizations there is a clash of priorities when it comes to readers.

“One priority obviously is to tell stories, and that’s something that we’ve done for a long time and we have a good instinct,” said Remington. “On the other hand, we’re conscious of the imperative to build a viable business around storytelling.”

This is a problem Eric Ulken is trying to navigate. Ulken, the executive director of digital strategy at (where I draw sports cartoons and cover sports media), is currently overseeing a complete redesign of his organization’s website, and is dealing with that balance between readability and ad placement first hand.

“A better experience for users can lead to a better experience for advertisers if a decrease in clutter helps draw attention to their messages,” Ulken said. “The problem is it’s hard to unclutter the experience without reducing the number of ads on the page. When every penny counts, this can be a hard sell.”

The difficulty for any development team is designing pages that appeal to readers while offering valuable and effective space to advertisers to conveying their messaging. And with the rise of ad blocking on mobile and the dramatic increase in automated ad sales, the obstacles for publishers trying to increase their digital revenue continue to grow.

The news isn’t all bad. With the growth of native advertising, any attempts at making web pages more readable will help advertisers reach their target audiences.

Earlier this year, the Atlantic completely overhauled their website, creating a cleaner reading experience across digital devices. While intended to enhance the readability and retention of their articles, the added engagement has also had a positive effect on their ad sales, especially their native advertising campaigns.

“(W)e have seen a 164 percent increase in metrics like page views, time on site and social actions taken year-over-year,” Hayley Romer, vice president and publisher of the Atlantic, told Nieman Lab.  “Additionally, high-impact units with non-standard pixel sizes are in huge demand, and are showing a 94 percent increase in engagement on our site over last year.”

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever visited a website. After all, it was Walt Whitman who once said, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.” I guess it’s up to the designers here at Editor & Publisher to get you to remember that.

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at

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Published: December 17, 2015


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