Mon 10 Oct
When Behavior was working on our redesign of The Onion, we would frequently look to The New York Times for hints on how a publication should present itself online, how content should be organized, how the user interface to an archive of articles should be manifested, etc. In so many ways, The Times is a de facto standard that leads the way in best practices: the decisions they make in developing their user interface can effectively validate a design convention.
For instance, their recent decision to provide, from articles, access to all the paper’s sections in a DHTML pop-up menu is a convincing argument for a navigational method that might previously have met with skepticism from any client I proposed it to. In my experience, the fact that “the Times does it” is proof enough that a convention is widely understood and acceptable.
So I have to admit, after helping The Onion open up its previously subscriber-only archives, I felt a little silly when Times Select was announced. This new service makes a subset of new content (mostly opinion articles) and the complete back catalog of New York Times articles available only to subscribers, effectively re-validating the idea of paid archives. Yes, it’s exactly the opposite of what I happened to advocate for The Onion, but I don’t see it as a reason to retreat from that position: I still happen to think opening The Onion’s archives was the right move. And at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that Times Select is a bad idea either; the newspaper business is experiencing a hard times, and if its online operation has a greater revenue burden to bear, I don’t begrudge it.
More to the point, I got to wondering about The Times’ role as the standard bearer for interaction design, and how truly influential it is. And it seemed strange to me that there’s relatively little discussion about how the design of nytimes.com itself can be improved, how its practices can be changed for the better — and, by extension, for everyone. This is the same kind of scrutiny that Google, for instance, receives in spades, but for some reason, there’s relatively little debate about The Times.
For the most part, we as designers silently defer to the decisions that The Times’s online design staff make, and we don᾿t loudly question it. Granted, they do their job very well, and they’ve put lots of good practices in place. But surely, there are real and material ways in which the paper’s user experience can be improved, aren’t there?
One example is their progressive march towards Web standards, which has been well-intentioned but somewhat fitful — should it be more aggressive or less? Or how about its online look and feel, which almost alone amongst its competitors maintains a strong visual fidelity to the printed edition — is it aging or has it become integral to the brand? How about its very architecture, which allows browsing in a manner more or less analogous with the offline paper; should it allow for a less structural, more intuitive browsing approach? I’d be very curious to know if this is a subject people just don’t think about that much, or if it’s a subject on which lots of people are keeping private notes — what do you think?