Content plus context for news front pages
A few days ago Adrian Holovaty mentioned a usability study from Wichita State University that compares three types of online content presentation — what the researchers call the “full,” “summary” and “links” designs — in which the “full” format presents the entire text of several articles, “summary” contains headlines and descriptions, and “links” contains just the linked headlines with no descriptions. Many news sites seem to use the “summary” design for their most important stories and the “links” design lower on the page for less important stories.
The Wichita researchers found no statistically significant differences between the three formats in the amount of time it took site visitors to find information, but the differences in users’ satisfaction were significant. They preferred the “summary” design most, for “promoting comprehension” and for “being visually pleasing.”
I, too, prefer the “summary” design because it clarifies headlines, which simplify a story down to less than 10 words and sometimes become sensationalist. The Intelligencer Record, where I worked last summer, calls them “summary graphs” and likes them enough to use them on at least 95% of the stories in their print edition as well — which is great because the copy desk rather than the Web staff usually writes them. (The Intelligencer doesn’t call them subheads because they're usually in sentence rather than headline form.)
In the future, computer displays will get bigger and news sites will be able to present, perhaps, an entire section’s full text articles on an area the size of a wall with visitors using the best interface of all — eye movement — for navigation. The “summary” system is probably the best solution in the meantime, but the limitations of the current Web (or perhaps the limitations of our current computer monitors) have trapped us with “index pages” for context and “story pages” for the information, with no space for stories on the index page and little space for context on the story pages.
Frankly, I think this is the biggest limitation of the Web as a medium for distributing news. The Web may be faster than any other publishing medium in history, but there is still usually a lag of several seconds between when a site visitor clicks on a link and when the next page is fully loaded in her browser (this delay is exacerbated by bloated HTML in site designs and is worst for people on modems or using Netscape 4.x, which sometimes takes forever to render complicated pages). Too many visitors to news sites (myself included) assume they are up to date on the news by reading the front page only, without clicking many links to actual articles. In contrast, when you read a printed newspaper, there is an excellent interface for reading a story after reading a headline or reading more of a story after you’ve read the summary in the lead. It’s called moving your eyes one line down on the page.
I wish online news organizations had a way for visitors to begin reading a story without clicking on a link, repositioning their eyeballs, and waiting for a new page to load. Online news sites’ front pages are what print edition front pages would look like if all their stories jumped to inside pages right after the headline. When I read the New York Times in print, I often read the entirety of the front page, leaving each article mid-sentence at its jump, before turning to any inside pages. When I read the New York Times online, I actually begin reading far fewer articles because doing so requires clicking a link from the front page, but because there is such a simple way to keep reading once I’ve started — the down arrow key, the page down key, my Intellimouse wheel, or even the vertical scrollbar — I do, usually reading articles to the end.
What I’m looking for is a simpler interface than the link that site visitors can use to begin reading stories listed on a front page. The best realistic idea that I can come up with is some kind of semitransparent DHTML or Flash popup that would appear when a visitor clicked or mouseovered the headline and would contain a scrollable copy of the story’s full text as well as easy ways to dismiss the popup or expand it to fill the screen. But an ideal interface for something like this would involve eye-tracking: When you simply looked at a headline for a second or so the full text would pop up underneath; if you continued to read that text it would stay there but if you looked away it would disappear and uncover the original front page.
Don’t hold your breath for any innovation like this, especially since the eye-tracking system or larger monitors would require expensive new hardware for millions of PCs, but I do think that eventually someone will invent a good online way to present an index of today’s news together with the content of that news, making obsolete the old system of “summary” design on news sites and providing an addition to the Web’s basic navigational structure, the link.