A Cool Solution to an Old Design Problem
The veteran minor-league manager Rocky Bridges once quipped that “every man thinks he can do three things better than any other man: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.” It’s a good line, one I might update for our age by going gender-neutral (of course) and subbing out “build a fire” in favor of “design a home page.”
I should know — I’ve been through at least three substantial redesigns of newspaper home pages, more than enough to teach me some hard truths:
- People who aren’t involved with the project but have power over it (“stakeholders,” in meeting-speak) excel at tearing things down, but the next workable solution proposed by a stakeholder might be the first.
- Focus groups are smorgasbords from which points are cherry-picked to support agendas. You could spend a lot less money and get the same effect by writing random things on flash cards, only nobody would get to eat free candy and doze off in the dark behind the one-way glass.
- Everyone will take a hard line against cluttering the home page with other departments’ me-too links to services no reader wants. These links will all wind up on the home page anyway.
- It’s a terrible moment when you realize you’ve learned how to navigate the spread of Cosi sandwiches to find the kind you like.
- It will be obvious early that there isn’t enough room on the home page for everything that everybody thinks needs to be there, but any effort to talk frankly about this will be dismissed as negative thinking.
Too often that’s the process, and a newspaper that follows it tends to wind up with a camel. Except the committee that designed a wacky-looking horse usually also loads it up with so many links and widgets and gimcracks that the poor beast can hardly walk. (By the way, I’m not picking on my old paper — or any other one, really. These unhappy truths are the same pretty much everywhere, and the problem is the process, which is simultaneously the fault of nobody and everybody.)
Anyway, the last problem — not enough room, not enough willingness to admit there’s not enough room — is the biggest roadblock to escaping a home-page redesign. A common response is a Hail Mary to the design team to break the impasse by coming up with … something. This also tends not to work — confronted with an impossible problem at the 11th hour, somebody comes up with some fiendishly difficult mechanism that leaves the developers gaping in disbelief, makes the project later, and is then subverted by annoyed editors.
Having been through this, I’m reluctant to criticize anything “below the fold” on a home page, and my heart reflexively goes out to any Web publication that unveils a redesign and then spends the next three weeks getting cuffed around by readers demanding that it be changed back. I know the bitter trail of PowerPoints and wireframes and half-eaten cookie plates the people involved have traversed, and what it’s like to reach the end of the journey only to take a beating.
Yet now and again I see something and my eyes light up. For the latest example, look at the top of the home page of Ars Technica. After some pretty standard stuff (horizontal navigation, various arglebargle crammed into the banner), it moves to a mediabox-style presentation of “big art” designed to attract the reader’s eye, along with headlines. But when you mouse over a photo, a summary of the article springs up over it.
You can learn more about the story without clicking into it. Neither the art nor the summary is chopped down because of the need to leave space for the other. The summary appears where the reader’s attention is already focused, engaging him without distracting him. It’s a good trick, one that serves readers and publishers alike.
Will it solve everything? No — but it’s pretty neat. Wish I’d had it — and the option of wasabi roast-beef sandwiches — back in my own home-page meetings.