The LA Times has, this very morning, released a site update. We were given some idea what to expect from Eddy Hartenstein’s email, detailing responsive design, image-centric journalism. So far, so now, so what?
Happily, the new site looks good. Slick, cool, and of the time, which, as shallow as it sounds, does mean something to users. Outdated websites are just a bit depressing to use and also reflect badly on the company. So this is good. I will discuss each of the features in more detail, but the first glaring, searing observation is the dominance of Twitter over Facebook, or other social networks on article pages.
Looking at an article page, take this one on climate change from today’s paper.
The social sharing before the headline (itself an interesting user experience choice, share it before you have read it?) is fairly standard and instantly familiar. The muted grey colour is also nice, as your eye isn’t drawn to the various colours of each band. For logo purists however, the colours change when you hover over the icons, for example, the Facebook ‘f’ turns to that familiar Facebook blue when your mouse/finger hovers over it.
This is all pretty standard.
Where it gets interesting is just below the main image for the article, again, before the text of the article, suggesting that sharing is encouraged before the piece has been read. There are three Twitter-friendly summaries.
The significance for me is that despite all of Facebook’s efforts to attract publishers, the LA Times as a publisher is still favouring Twitter as a means of distribution over Facebook. To share the articles above on Facebook isn’t particularly difficult, you simply click or hover on the grey arrow and the familiar Facebook ‘f’ appears. However, it is clear that Twitter is the social network of choice for the LA Times. It simply has more real estate on the page.
The home page itself however does not conform to this, instead featuring the Facebook ‘like’ social plugin and nary a mention of Twitter. Curious. I also don’t like the look of the Facebook ‘like’ plugin, as shown below. The blue feels rather jarring against the black and white design of the site. I believe the simple Facebook ‘f’, which again could turn blue in hover state would be more aesthetically-appealing.
This is a sweeping assumption, but if I had been involved in this redesign, I would have started with referral traffic to help me decide which social networks to favour. Thinking of the analytics side of it, time on site and the number of pages viewed would also impact my decision. Following this train of thought suggests that Twitter generates more and potentially higher quality traffic than Facebook. Google+ isn’t even included in this sharing menu, which up until last week I would have deemed an error, however as Vic Gundotra, the head of Google +, has just left his position, pundits and armchair experts everywhere are questioning the future of Google +.
The issue of sharing the piece potentially before the user has read it harks back to an earlier post of mine, questioning the value of a tweet. In that post I argued that a tweet with an original, unique summary of the content, coupled with a yet-to-be-defined time on the site (which I would use to infer that the content had been read) is more valuable than an auto-tweet using the provided summary. The LA Times’ does not appear to think along these lines.
More generally, the new design has the following:
1) Infinite scroll. Yes, all the cool kids are already doing it, and the LA Times is just catching up. But it’s a change and it looks good.
2) Visual browsing. Whilst this looks good and I can imagine it working well on mobiles and tablets, I feel a bit lost. It might just be a question of getting used to it but when scrolling through I am not sure I am reading the ‘main’ stories. Of course, there is always the conventional navigational browsing to rid me of that anxiety so this is probably a good feature given the ‘mobile first’ approach of this redesign. I wonder if the visual browsing is ‘smart’? Will it take into account my browsing history and clicks?
3) Updated navigation, on the left-hand navigation rail. Local stories are given top billing, followed by sports, which I find pretty controversial personally, but I am sure they looked into their users to come up with this hierarchy. The focus on local stories is interesting, I hope it works because as a user I am sometimes frustrated by my inability to find local news on the New York Times and often resort to Gothamist instead, as it usually has more neighbourhood stories.
4) Responsive Design. I sway on this topic, but here I believe it is the best option. As users switch from mobile to desktop to tablet, often within a few hours, it makes sense to try and provide a consistent experience for the user. The site is pretty fast, scoring a B with GT Metrix, which suggests that there is room for improvement but it is respectable.
I’ve resisted the urge to read other summaries, wanting to be a honest about my observations. But now, out into the great unknowns of public opinions. First stop, Fast Company. Let’s see what the people think.