YOU SAY YOU WANT AN EVOLUTION?

By: Staci D. Kramer

Washingtonpost.com Takes Change Gradually

A Web Site Review

October began with a revolution, the LATimes.com’s radical overhaul that left visitors double-checking the URL to make sure they were at the right place. The month ended with an ongoing evolution at washingtonpost.com, which is spending millions to promote its new regional portal.

As the home page evolved from a news front into a portal, the result is a quietly different look carefully edged into place piece by piece. Frequent visitors can see a difference but it’s not a jarring change. It’s more like mixing in some new furniture with old favorites and using a slightly different shade of color on the walls.

But like any remodeling job, you’re bound to run into problems along the way. Sometimes it’s as minor as bumping into a rearranged dresser in the dark. Sometimes it’s a painter who takes a break midway through the job leaving a few rooms undone. The new bed looks like it arrived in good shape until you get in the first night and it caves in. Even the most subtle changes require some adjusting.

In the last few days, I’ve spent chunks of time large and small getting used to washingtonpost.com’s revamped digs. If I seem to fixate on a few glitches, I have to admit to feeling a tad sensitive to any change however subtle. As a frequent visitor since the site’s inception, I like this particular house and I want to continue to feel comfortable whenever I visit.

Cosmetics first

The flag still looks familiar. Gone from the front page is the clunky circular logo with the old-fashioned W and the new-fangled P, which shows up in slightly different form on other pages.

Instead of placing the flag on a dark-blue bar boxed in by gray on either end, the new look smooths out with a dark-blue background across the top and gray background with dark-blue type for the tabs and side bar. The old front-page navigation format relied heavily on identifying departments within the newspaper-comparable sections; the new style keeps the sections and saves the details for section fronts.

For instance, instead of clicking directly on Books from the front page, you get there by going to Style and then Books, or to Entertainment and then Books. (This doesn’t include front-page teases that may pop up from time to time.) The left-hand bar expands to include the departments as you move from section to section. The previous left-hand look was chunky, but this version offers a sleeker first-screen view.

Still, it’s tough to make anything look sleek when you have 100-plus elements on the first two screens. Somehow, the mix of widths, styles, and boxes on the front page avoids being unusable. Elements are different enough to allow the frequent visitor to get used to the shape and sometimes the color of the information or access point sought most regularly.

The new navigation, especially the top tabs which make it easier to jump from channel to channel, work. But all too often the new look is juxtaposed with old-look pages that haven’t yet been redone for whatever reason. Just when I think I’m getting used to the new system I move the cursor to click on a tab that isn’t there. It’s tough to retrain visitors to think in channels that can’t be found consistently.

The new navigation, including the Google search engine, is at the top and bottom of most of the new look pages, a help given the length of some channel and section fronts. But that’s not the case on the news front, which could use a little navigation boost at the bottom as could anything that runs to four pages when you print it out.

?Latest stories? has disappeared, leaving in its place ?More News,? which barely budged Monday, not even to make way for the breaking news item about United Healthcare that eventually led the page as part of the transition to Tuesday’s cycle. (Actually, it isn’t exactly in its place; it’s moved far down the increasingly lengthy page.)

As someone accustomed to visiting the site frequently for updates, I’d like to enter a plea for at least a ?Breaking News? or ?Latest News? link on the first screen of the page. Symbols marking stories as ?new? or ?updated? wouldn’t hurt either. Why challenge people to the memory game when it’s relatively easy to alert them to news changes?

The portal push

News still comes first but it’s been joined by five more channels, each with its own look and feel: Politics, Entertainment, Live Online, Marketplace, and onwashington.com. Only onwashington.com looks so different that it could be another site.

The News channel remains one of the best examples of how to mesh the full content of a print edition with the needs and goals of an online news outlet. You can still easily access the print edition section by section, department by department. Online purists may scoff at repurposing, but in the absence of a strong print daily national edition, this is manna for many.

Ostensibly you can still call up an image of each day’s print front page, but clicking on Monday’s link took me to the sports front. Then again, clicking on ?feedback? took me to an error page, a glitch that was eventually resolved. To be fair, a massive site with 60,000 pages is bound to have glitches, with or without a redesign.

But some of the online outlet’s best work isn’t readily accessible at all. Given the site’s deep archive of special reports, it might help to have a front-page link instead of expecting visitors to know they should drill down section by section.

For instance, another visitor went to the site looking for the well-done Watergate special and finally turned to me for help. No variation of the site search engine pulled it up. I looked in the News Index and saw ?special report? as a link in several sections. Clicking on the one in ?Nation? did the trick.

Then, on a whim, I tossed the terms ?Washington Post,? ?Watergate,? and ?special? into the separate Google Web search engine up top. Pay dirt on the first try. It shouldn’t be easier to find something on the site with an external search engine than it is through the site’s own searching device.

The failure to put up a front-page link to ?Special Reports? is especially odd since the link to ?Photo Galleries,? a similar online plus, is now at the top of the left-hand index.

I’ll save most of politics for another day but ?OnPolitics? remains a political bookmark must. The Virage/C-Span video search engine for presidential candidates is a nice touch but I had absolutely no luck finding the video results of George W. Bush’s world-leader pop quiz. I had better success with ?Bill Bradley? and ?Knicks? and ?Al Gore? and ?Internet.?

?Live Online? gathers all of the site’s live elements into one place, with links to archived discussion and promos for upcoming sessions. Unlike other sites with a reliance on forums, the current washingtonpost.com strategy emphasizes moderated live discussions. That decision is both a strength and weakness. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any place to talk about the redesign. Feedback by e-mail is invited through the ?new look? publisher’s note linked at the top of the front page but unlike LATimes.com and other sites with major redesigns, there’s no obvious place for public interaction.

onwashington.com is off

Which brings us to onwashington.com, the new frontier for interaction. Based on ?My AltaVista,? the new channel and site offers personalized home pages by ZIP code or city and state. The publisher’s note describes it as ?an exciting new home page option for D.C., Maryland, and Virginia residents who want detailed community information sorted by neighborhood or ZIP code and customized to suit your interests.?

I tried to make it work. I really tried. Every so often it looked like the potential was being delivered and then I’d be let down. First, if the site is meant for use primarily by D.C., Maryland, and Virginia residents, say so up front. Don’t offer options for any ZIP code or a list of other states to choose from.

Here’s what happened when I tried to personalize based on the options offered me. I quickly discovered that even though popping in my University City, Mo., ZIP code brought up nearby movie theaters, the restaurant search remained anchored firmly in the District and its environs. Typing Tony’s (the name of the top restaurant in St. Louis) brought up numerous selections ranging from Tony’s of Benedict to Tony’s Diner, 3117 Vera St., Baltimore.

It might be excusable if the ZIP code personalization worked across the board for true local ZIP codes, which is what onwashington aims to do. Typing in numerous Washington ZIP codes tossed to me by the D.C. native in the house produced scattershot results, often dumping me into a ?My AltaVista? page instead of an ?onwashington.com? page. When I did get the right page, the news which was supposed to be personalized by ZIP code instead brought up regional news headlines and community offerings from Maryland.

Just in case my problems were computer or browser based, I switched both. Nothing helped. I checked my ZIP codes in the ZIP-plus-4 database (http://www.usps.gov/ncsc/lookups/lookup_ZIP+4.html) found by using the AltaVista search tool on the page. Right ZIP codes. Wrong responses.

On the plus side, the customization options are much better than many other portals and the personalized features have the potential to be truly useful. But back to the minus side, how many people will come back for second, third, or fourth looks?

If I’m expecting too much, help me reign in my expectations by making it very clear what the site can and can’t deliver. If I can get local movie and TV listings, but not dining or live entertainment, tell me.

Upshot? An evolution offers less potential for chaos than a revolution but even the best-
prepared site can suffer from feature-itis.

Washingtonpost.com remains valuable for what it offers most consistently. The frills have yet to become necessities.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Staci D. Kramer (sdk@cris.com) reviews news Web sites for Editor & Publisher Interactive. This review was conducted using a 19-inch screen and Netscape 4.5.




(c) Copyright 1999, Editor & Publisher

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