Ripped from the Headlines

NYPost.comAs of yesterday morning, there’s a new NYPost.com, and I like it a lot. It’s miles away from what we do at NYTimes.com, and it’s not exactly my taste in terms of graphic design, but its unabashed appropriateness and surprising sense of wit is kind of irresistible.

Then again, this is just me talking. A few people with whom I’ve expressed my enthusiasm about this site aren’t quite as enamored of it as I am. Like my good friend Liz Danzico, Director of User Experience Strategy at AIGA and editor of the information architecture magazine Boxes & Arrows, for one. Her reaction to my endorsement of the site was, “REALLY?” — all caps and everything.


Talk of the Town

We started arguing about it a bit over instant messenger during the workday, trading increasingly heated appraisals and criticisms. And then it struck me that the exchange might actually make for an interesting debate in blog form, sort of like a roundtable discussion except, er, without the table and with just two people. So we decided to move the conversation to email, where we could fully articulate our responses, and we volleyed messages back and forth during the afternoon and early evening in pretty much exactly the form I’m publishing here. I think you’ll get a kick out of it, too; and let me know which of us you think is right on and which is totally off-base.

Below: Holy sheet! A brand new NYPost.com home page.
NYPost.com Home Page

Khoi Vinh

One of my designers showed me the new NYPost.com first thing this morning, and my immediate reaction was, “This is great!” It’s different from what we’re doing at NYTimes.com, but I like it anyway, because I think so much online news design blurs together. This one definitely stands out; it’s memorable and friendly and a bit salacious, which is perfect for what I think I expect when I pick up a copy of The New York Post.

Liz Danzcio

Really? I completely disagree! My first reaction was to close the browser — it seemed busy, buggy, and just plain disorganized. I agree that the Post should be a balance between approachable and devious, but not in this way. The homepage still hasn’t loaded properly five minutes later.

What makes it stand out for you? To me, it doesn’t seem that they’re doing anything different from, say, ESPN.com.

K.V.

Wait, earlier when we talked, I thought that you said it should look more like ESPN.com…? In either case, while I imagine sports is a big part of the Post’s business, I don’t think the high tech, dashboard-style visual design of a site like ESPN.com is exactly the right way to describe this design, or the right prescription for fixing it.

What I like about it is the bold, unapologetic use of the newspaper metaphor — as in, the Web page evokes the look of an actual issue of the newspaper — which is much cleverer than most online uses of newspaper metaphors. The most prominent example is how they manage to pull off that big, torn-edge navigation bar very successfully; it’s highly evocative of their brand while being usable at the same time. It has a feeling of a provocative tabloid without feeling as if the content is trapped within the conceits of print design practices.

The graphics and typography, while not my exactly taste, are big and bold. It’s just a very emphatic statement that doesn’t go completely overboard. And it’s done with wit, which is something you don’t see often in Web design, especially for news sites.

L.D.

No, no, no. I said they seem to be trying to be like ESPN.com, but are just not pulling it off. It’s the standard feature-subfeature- subfeature-with-supporting articles-below-and-ads-on-the-right template. The Post’s approach, to me, doesn’t stand out as being different at all. Radar Magazine, in fact, is a better New York Post than NYPost.com even though they’re using that same format.

And torn edges don’t seem to suggest brand attributes, rather they just suggest a format. And this, being online and all, is a different format. So, although the torn edges work perhaps as a decoration, I’m not sure they’re important to the brand.

As for the type, big and bold is nice sometimes, even welcome, but why so many different styles? The section modules on the homepage have five type treatments — five — and there are only ten lines of text. I’m all for using typography for emphasis, but only when it has a clear purpose. And not only do these not have a purpose, it’s impossible to distinguish which ones are links and which are just text.

(The homepage finally loaded, by the way.)

K.V.

I’m not saying that the torn-paper edge is a brand attribute, but rather that it’s evocative of the brand. Looking at NYPost.com isn’t like looking at the front of the newspaper itself, but it does look like a sensible translation of the newspaper into another medium.

There’s probably an overabundance of typefaces, that’s true. Let’s be frank, though; the Post is never going to be a paragon of typographic restraint. But who cares? It would be completely inappropriate of them to typeset this site as if they were going for a Type Director’s Club honor. What they’ve done here instead is something that makes a lot of sense for who they are and who their readers are and how they consume the news.

As for what you describe as a kind of unimaginative way of presenting features, sub-features and ads, I’m not sure it’s fair to ask the Post to develop a completely innovative presentation of the news. Their approach is similar to what we do at NYTimes.com, and I’m not embarrassed by it at all.

This arrangement of stories and ads is a product of the fairly restrictive set of editorial and business constraints governing every news site’s front page. Maybe my experience with NYTimes.com makes me more sympathetic to NYPost.com’s approach to the problems than I should be, but I think they’ve done a very respectable job of not making the page a jumble.

I’ll probably get dinged at work for saying this, but in some ways, this page is easier to comprehend than what we’ve got. I’ll take issue with their journalistic content of course (much of it I really dislike), and I still think we’ve got the better news operation and Web site (by far!), but this does the job. It’s very different from what we do, which I think is completely okay because it’s done very well.

I agree that there are some technical glitches on this, their first day out, but I don’t think they’re deal-breakers. They’ll get fixed. I hope.

L.D.

I’m certainly not asking them to win awards for typography. But what I do require is simply a clear sense of how to get around. Headlines are clickable in one area, not clickable in others. Sometimes I click “More” for detail; other times for more of the same. Traverse down a level or two and a whole new visual language is revealed. I’m not asking for much, just a little help knowing how to get around.

And, OK. Perhaps the torn-edges and drop shadows evoke a sense of the paper’s legacy. I’ll give you that. But that’s not what the Post is known for. Every New Yorker knows about the staunch competition between the Post’s and the Daily News’ headlines where they try to out-sensationalize the other with provocative headlines. That’s the brand attribute that I want to see; that and Page Six make the paper what it is. I’m not sure why, but even with the large point size of the header, it doesn’t seem as central to the design as I would have imagined it to be.

To the homepage’s credit, there is an elegant hierarchy in the modules at the bottom of the page. They communicate a clear direction, I know what to click on, I know how to interpret the information. With little exception, what falls between the navigation at the top and the bottom of the page seems without order or reason.

And, yes, with all due respect, this page makes it easier to choose content from the homepage than the NYTimes.com. The sheer amount of choice on NYTime.com’s homepage makes it so. But, I would argue, that extent of choice is evocative of that brand. So I’m okay with it.

K.V.

Regarding the sensationalism, I think it’s there. It feels big to me. I can see how you’d like to see the headlines even louder, more exuberant, and in that I think the designers can maybe ratchet up the shock value a bit to better match what’s done in the paper. The page turning animation in the main news/feature hole seems to set the stage for that, though; it has an absurdist quality to it that seems over-the-top, yet it’s fleeting enough to also feel entirely appropriate — plus it’s fun. It’s not something I ever would have thought could work, but here it’s a winner.

There are some confused usability issues, you’re right. It can use a bit of a brush up in terms of visual logic. I agree I’d definitely like to see a much more predictable schema for understanding what’s a link and what’s not. But I wouldn’t re-engineer very much at all. It’s not perfect, but as a whole I think it comes off very well, and if they continue to tweak it, I think it’s a solid foundation for a lot more of those insane headlines that I totally disapprove of.

L.D.

You know, I wonder if that was intentional — meaning that the shock value that, in the newspaper, manifests itself in editorial strategy (e.g., headlines) is here manifesting itself in interaction design (e.g., absurd, but compelling, page-turning animations). If that was the intention, then I can really only just respect them for that. It’s a real challenge, I would imagine, to think of new ways to sensationalize news, and I believe they have done it to some extent. As you say: despite its clear — yet surmountable — usability issues, it seems likely to be a winner.

K.V.

That’s pretty much exactly what I mean!

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  1. Well if you’ve got an older Mac (dual G4), the homepage is painful computer-wise. The main feature is blank most of the time and it feels like Flash is killing the page.

    “Perhaps the torn-edges and drop shadows evoke a sense of the paper’s legacy. I’ll give you that. But that’s not what the Post is known for.”

    How can you know unless you’ve done or seen lots of research? The tabloid-ish content *and* format are what I think of when I think Post — in fact, I sort of picture it in my head as wrinkled and dirty on the floor of the train, or the seat, where you have to carefully inspect it before you dare pick it up to read. I can’t say for sure this is an aspect they’d want to emphasize, but I’d guess they’d be happy to frolic in their salaciousness (of varying types).

    And I also agree I think large type first and foremost when picturing the print cover — but as Khoi mentions I think some of this is just going with the medium; there are usually only a few items on the cover of the print version, obviously not feasible online.

    I can’t reliably (technically) see the “absurdist quality to it that seems over-the-top” quality of the main feature, but I increasingly think only designers think of things that way (I’d include myself). My impression is due to education and such, designers are (often justifiably) more conservative than readers — the valid points on navigation and consistency will obviously affect readers, but like Khoi’s saying, I think people won’t mind a bit of the “absurd” or as a regular reader would say “not boring” quality of it. I have of course picked up these thoughts by reading sites where designers *do not* hang out. I think designers need to remember to not become too insular or incestuous… okay enough rambling. Good post (ha!).

  2. Does this discussion ultimately boil down to the issue of class? Graphpaper.com’s excellent series on the subject immediately comes to mind when reading this.

    I feel the designers have done a good job in visually expressing the brand of the paper and that brand reflects the tastes inherent in the class of the audience (and class is not just about income). I also believe that the inconsistencies in the UI (which may not translate to actual usability problems) are just as integral to the brand as the torn paper image. If the user experience has the power to expresses the brand, than the visual design, the information architecture, and the interaction design all play their part. I’m not saying the rough edges in the UI were done intentionally, but isn’t that the point?

  3. I don’t buy Chris’s ‘class’ argument over at Graphpaper, to be honest. It’s true that class is a mix of social, cultural and economic factors, but in the context of Web design, you’re just talking about different groups of users. There are people smarter, more popular and wealthier than any random New York Times reader who read The New York Post; I really fail to see how you can define one or the other based on class unless you expand the definition of class so broadly as to make its original, colloquial meanings irrelevant.

  4. Class is an attribute of a user group. A user group is at least partly defined by web savvy, computer savvy, frequency of use, education, job experience, income level etc. When screening usability test participant’s income level can be a factor. Education level can be a factor. Class is never alluded to directly, but it might as well be.

    Yes some highly educated, wealthy, and visually sophisticated folks love The New York Post (for various reasons I’m sure), but what about the majority of the readers? In the same way, I would imagine people without formal higher educations, without much money, and without powerful connections equally enjoy reading The New York Times, but are they the majority?

    I don’t agree with Chris’s view entirely, but his point that class is not a dirty word is well taken. What matters is how people make distinctions and treat others. Designers are responsible in communicating effectively on behalf of our clients. I believe addressing the class issue, in a respectful manner, is simply another tool to help us do our jobs.

  5. When it comes to New York newspapers, there are certain “givens” that New Yorkers know: The Times will give you top-notch reporting, period; The Post has the best Sports section and, of course, Page Six; The Daily News…um…uh…I’m not really sure what their strong suit is…

    That said, I think The Post’s redesign give their readers exactly what they want — below the main story/graphic, there you see Sports and Page Six. The thing is, they could’ve tried to be more elegant about typography and whatnot, but at the end of the day, what makes this redesign so successful (to me) is that they wholeheartedly embrace who they are. It’s unabashed sensationalism and they are not sorry!

    As far as the “class” issue goes, I’m not going to lean either way, but I will say that almost every day, I grab The Post to read on my train ride to work both for the fact that I’m a sports fan and yes, Page Six can be entertaining (remember: gossip is fun, as long as it’s not about you!). But the main reason why I grab The Post and not The Times for my train ride is the sole fact that it’s tabloid format is just plain easier to manage and read on a train ride. That’s probably less a reflection of my class and more that I’m just plain lazy.

    (By the way, does anybody know what agency did The Post’s redesign? Just wondering.)

  6. I have to say for me the post’s site completely unusable. It takes for ever to load, and there’s errors all over the place. Hopefully the latter is just teething troubles, but the design is just too bandwidth heavy.

    No matter how strong or appropriate the design is, a site that hasn’t fully loaded after 4 minutes over a 2 meg broadband connection is a disgrace. The flash news section seems to be the main culprit, but the rest of the site is little better.

    They’d better get to improving this fast.

  7. Great discussion, and thanks to Matt for saving me the discomfort of being the first to bring up class.

    Khoi, I’m confused by your definition (or lack thereof) of class. Colloqially, it does have a broad definition, covering everything from what job you have to the furniture you own to the newspapers you read. I’m not sure what you’d limit it to if you wouldn’t include the design of the cultural products we consume.

    I also don’t get how you seem to think that a newspaper web site’s “users” are so completely different in kind from, say, a newspaper’s meatspace readers. I agree with Matt — class is a fluid thing, and clearly not every person in a class group will embody every class attribute fully. And as Sean rightly points out, sports and gossip are class markers that increasingly bleed across the class spectrum (in fact, it’s entirely a class-based pretention that the Times still largely eschews sports, gossip, and comics). But you don’t design the Post for those few readers who are smarter and more wealthy than your average Times reader, you design it for the average Post reader, who is less educated and less wealthy.

    And Liz: I don’t see the page-turning effect as “interaction design”. It’s just a decoration, IMHO. The Post’s interaction design is pretty normal, I think, although the MORE dropdown and the PULSE tabbed widget both seem pretty clever.

    Anyway, I see class all over your discussion above. I’m not sure of the etiquette of writing a longer response to this on my own site, but that’s what I’ve done: continued at graphpaper.

  8. i think NYPost.com is waaaaay better than the so very stuck up and perfectionistic NYTimes.com – life is messy, people are messy, news is messy, communication is messy, gossip is messy – NYPost.com has it all down. It is art imitating life – so very sublimely.

    my 2 cents

    g

  9. I guess the Daily News’ claim to fame (by their own horn-tooting) is being New York’s picture paper? But I didn’t get it…

    Maye it’s the separate Comics section on Sundays. Yeah, that must be it.

  10. yeah- but guys.
    Boy does it like it carry the brand.
    I’m not sure I necessarily like it – but – boy does it really carry the brand!

  11. yeah- but guys.
    Boy does it like it carry the brand.
    I’m not sure I necessarily like it – but – boy does it really carry the brand!