Thinking about The Times

The New York TimesWhen 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. Menu

The Archive Trend: Open or Closed?

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.

Above: It’s all good. This navigational menu from The Times made similar menus possible everywhere.

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 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.

What Do You Think?

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?

  1. I personally find the design of to be cluttered, it’s not that the information isn’t clear or that it’s hard to navigate, it’s that the volume of information on each page is astronomical to the point of confusion.

    It seems that there are constantly completely random stories and links scattered across every page, which makes it hard for me to focus.

    They should take a note from, who’s primary achievement is the simplicity and clarity with which a vast amount of content is housed in a dead-easy interface.

  2. I think a big driver of why we have these de-facto standards is that the web development industry is particularly prone to trend-following / bandwagonism. Whether it’s the people signing off or the developers themselves I think there is a strong tendency for companies to over-examine their peers’ and competitors’ work before commencing or changing their own. This seems to be why so many competing sites appear cut from the same cloth.

    For example, I’ve worked on many a project where great ideas have been vetoed by insecure managers because “that’s not what xxxx is doing”. And just as often where features are included purely through a me-too motivation.

    How else can you explain why so much of the web is suddenly in “Beta”, why upcoming web products now have pre-launch websites requiring “invitation codes” and any new web app just isn’t cool unless it has oversized input fields?

    I think the only way to avoid this is for the industry to stop navel gazing so much and think about building sites for real users — not to impress other developers or emulate the flavour of the week. The key to innovation and developing better standards is to challenge the status quo and continue to re-evaluate and re-think problems that are too quickly assumed to be solved.

  3. I find Times Select obnoxious, but I may have to buy into it, since I’ve been missing my weekly Frank Rich fix.

    As far as the Times’ slow move towards embracing standards, it’s most definitely a good thing for them. I won’t really comment on whether or not they’re being too slow or too fast about it because the Times site is so incredibly big that it’s bound to take them some time to fully migrate.

    As far as design, I think it’s great. I wouldn’t change much except to migrate it to good code and add a little (just a little) padding here and there. But there’s no chance in Hell would I want to attempt it!

    @oliver – The Times present an “astronomical” amount of content on each page because they produce and archive as much content on a weekly or even daily basis as ALA has in its entire history.

    That’s like comparing an essay to an encyclopedia – I just don’t think it’s fair to compare the two.

  4. As I’m from the UK I don’t really see the Times site that much. BBC News is the best news site ever, perhaps because the bbc dont have some 100 year old paper they have to try to emulate and of course there are no adverts.

  5. Ans: I think that’s a great point about “bandwagon-ism.” It’s nothing to be proud of, but the Times is the bandwagon, for better or worse. I’m thankful they’ve done a relatively decent job of building their bandwagon… six years ago, Amazon was the bandwagon for everything, and it had a bad effect on Web design in general, I think.

    In response to general criticisms that The Times is too busy, crowded, etc. I think I might empathize with this complaint a bit because I’d like to see everything much more minimal, but I’m comfortable with the reality that a newspaper’s home page needs to house lots of different parts. I guess what I’m wondering is: should it be busy in a different way? Should the home page user interface be all Ajaxified and discoverable?

  6. The primary weakness of most newspaper Web sites is the static, mostly uniform and rarely changing layout. (You could also apply this critique to most online publications in general) On the NYTimes, for example, there’s almost always one photo on the right, four main stories to the left, and a few smaller stories below the photo. I almost yawn everytime I see it. What’s most unfortunate about this layout (besides the sheer soperifity of it making me snooze at my desk) is that it’s a step backwards from paperware. The layout to the newspaper changes every day (around grid-based conventions) to reflect the priority of news items. All the NYTimes does is put up a large font headline during large news stories.

  7. I think that’s another really excellent point, Steve. So much of the innovation that goes into online design is invested in developing the platform itself, and probably not enough is invested into sustaining the platform with continued innovation in the presentation of content.

    That kind of visual inventiveness is one of the reasons that Salon met with so much early praise for its design sensibility; they really did try and make the site feel appreciably different with each new feature story.

    Which leads me to say that one thing I’d like to see on The Times is a lot more illustration. There’s not enough of it on the Web to begin with, and using more of it at The Times would have a nice ripple effect, I think.

  8. re: Steve’s comment about the static nature of the content. Cut these guys some slack. Information has to be thrown up there probably within a minute or 2 of a breaking story. I think to a large degree that’s what dictates the nature of the front page design especially.

  9. I agree with Steve as well; and I don’t think it’s an issue of the editors having 2 minutes to throw up stories — it’s a technical/production issue.

    I’ve not worked in the design/production dept of a paper, but I’d be surprised if they created every frontpage layout from scratch each day. I would guess they have a library of templates, each allowing for different emphasis and story count and so on. If they need to blow through a column (within the grid still) for a specific case they can do that — the difference in doing that in Quark/InDesign/etc. compared to the work required to do the same in HTML/CSS is pretty significant.

    So I think it’s largely that web page design/production is still too primitive to allow for this sort of (relatively) easy flexibility. I’d think they could still have a few variations, but in online publishing it’s often much deeper than just changing a template – the entire backend needs to be able to accommodate the variations.

    I suspect in the next couple years we’ll start to see more variation in the pages, similar to print papers. And as for lack of illustrations, well ask an illustrator if you really want to hear a tirade on that! Long-standing gripes on the declining usage of illustrators and trend towards stock everything.

  10. I wonder what the people at the Times would say to the ‘fishwrap’ theory of New York Times online pricing (‘today it’s news, tomorrow it’s fishwrap’). I’ve read this idea on numerous blogs, but it makes sense to me. The New York Times archival content value, on an individual article basis, seems very low, unless you are the type of user who is probably already paying for a Lexis subscription. Speaking personally, I’ve probably found several hundred articles in the Times archives that I’ve wanted to read, but I’ve never paid for a single one. The pricing structure seems insane. Furthermore, from the Grey Lady’s perspective, it would seem that maintaining her position as the “paper of record” would be of paramount importance, and every time a potential reader is turned away from an archived story by the fee system, a tiny chip is taken out of the pedestal.

    On the flip side, *today’s* New York Times is of very high value to me, I’m already accustomed to paying for it. I pay for timely access to the Wall Street Journal and numerous other internet resources, and I would certainly pay some percentage of a traditional subscription fee to access the day’s news.

    The model seems backwards: make the archives free, make today’s news subscription-based. It would also be possible to explore various single-viewing options (extremely small payments, Salon-style ‘Day Passes’, partnering with other companies to provide day passes as promotion…). After 24-48 hours, all the premium content becomes free and accessible via the archives. Email it to your friends, etc., etc.

    What am I missing here?

  11. The NYT Select program will finally answer the question about blogs’ ability to help shape public discourse. I’ve already seen a chart showing a noticeable drop in links to the Select columns after the imposition of fees. Will that be enough to devalue NYT’s currency of record, relevance and initiator of agendas?

    Re: copying what NYT does to convince clients is a losing proposition in the long run, whether you call it best practice or not. You give doubting clients the perfect ammunition to devalue Design. You are saying it’s OK to copy big sites simply because they are big, for the design and performance of the NYT dropdown menu itself is pretty poor. Well, if it’s OK to copy one feature, your client might think, why not the whole site? Why bother with contextual thinking or original design? Why spend money on design research? Why create several prototypes? Why experiment at all? Why bother?

  12. “the fact that ‘the Times does it’ is proof enough that a convention is widely understood and acceptable.”

    Not necessary so. The whole visual concept of the NYT (as already discussed) is something that’s not likely to be followed by another team, so I see no reason to follow navigation/usability conventions by default, neither.

    Also, from case to case, the approach and the decisions depend on the project at hand (nothing new, you’ll agree).

    In the last six months, we’ve been working on a three different Croatian newspaper sites (and almost managed the fourth) and each has a fair share of differences. Some decisions were made by the designers and designers only, some by information architect, and sometimes we simply had to go after what the client requested, and hoped for the best.

    Said that, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow any decisions/solutions blindly, if one has not a clear understanding of what factors preceded that decision.

  13. Marko: Yes, I would agree with what you’re saying, and I would also agree it’s worth repeating that conventions shouldn’t be blindly followed simply because they’re used by The Times. However, my point was that, for good or bad, The Times does set an agenda in their interface decisions — and because of that, it would be useful, I think, to consider how that agenda should or could be modified.

  14. For a long time, I’ve wanted to be able to maximise my browser window and have a news service add columns/boxes to take up the full width – that would give the feel of a big, opened newspaper.

  15. I don’t like the New York Times DHTML menu. Granted, it’s better than many, but I think it’s ugly and feels kind of like a hack.

    Moreover, it’s unnecessary. I never needed it before and I never use it now.

  16. I know I’m come late to this article, but am compelled to comment anyway. I think about these issues quite a lot and find almost all online versions of newspapers, NYT among them, to be among the worst the web has to offer in terms of layout, legibility, usability, information architecture and everything else that matters to online content consumption.

    In fact I wrote about these things back in May, 2005. The article sums up my take better than I could regurgitate here. FWIW.

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