A fresh perspective: Improving the User Experience of nytimes.com

I’m a huge fan of traditional journalism and the famous, heavyweight newspapers. All The President’s Men is one of my favourite movies. Quality journalism continues to be valuable in our modern world (no, I’m not going there), and I’m always happy to invest time and money in supporting any work that contains high quality insight, consideration, and thought.

So when I read Om Malik’s recent article, “How is The New York Times Really Doing?”, it got my attention. Not unsurprisingly, the Times’ print advertising revenue is falling off a cliff—Malik shows it down 16% from 2015 to 2016 alone—and the website, more than ever, needs to deliver in subscription conversion, ease of reading experience, and surfacing of its great content to improve metrics that advertisers love.

So I took a fresh look at nytimes.com.

From my outside perspective, it’s an ocean of opportunity for improvement. The site is resting on this extraordinarily rich history and quality offering, but not yet delivering an online experience to match.

I love the idea that some of my insights might find their way to the right people at the Times; the paper deserves an online experience that is second to none. So here’s a few highlights from my review of the site.

nytimes.com is not a newspaper

Here’s today’s homepage for nytimes.com (Sunday March 5th 2017):

Problem 1: it looks like a newspaper, and the interaction experience feels like a newspaper.

nytimes.com is not a newspaper, it’s a website. Once you abandon the physical paper experience, many of the layout decisions and interaction styles must change and adapt to digital.

Looking like a paper carries across the wrong learned behaviour from paper to screen, because newspapers’ layout decisions and visual cues are based on a centuries-old, physical page-turning experience. In print, page lengths are fixed by the length of the sheet of paper. You can quickly scan either a half page (if the paper is folded) or the whole page, and everything is visible all at once. The top half of the front page is hugely responsible for making a daily sale on a street corner. Columns are essential to segment copy, as space and layout are fixed. For interaction, you can turn the page, thumb through the corners to find a particular page, start from the back cover, or… that’s it, until it’s recycled, laid underneath a child’s extravagant painting activity, or fed into a welcoming fireplace. (But I digress.)

All those rules change online. Page lengths are variable, and ease of scanning depends on the size of the device being used—from a watch screen to a 30" desktop display. Sales are based on perceived quality and the overall experience of use, and are (now) subscription based, not day-to-day. Content on a page can expand in-place or be overlaid, can be dynamically presented or repurposed based on myriad factors, and can live in multiple locations online. Even the term ‘web page’ is a misnomer, as there no longer needs to be a coarse, resetting visual change in the browser window to move from story to story, section to section. It’s a whole new rulebook.

So returning to the homepage screenshot above, it doesn’t need to look like a newspaper. It doesn’t need a masthead. Not every story needs to be visible at once, especially at those eyesight-testing font sizes (10px, a very small size, is used frequently on the homepage); sections and subheads and teasers can expand in-place based on reader curiosity, and competing visual information reduced when the site knows what we’re currently reading. And the page width need not be fixed! The entire browser width is a digital canvas, ready for use. Website space is infinite; our ability to process it all concurrently is not.

All this is a taster of the opportunity. Bring the brand cues and distinctive New York Times style online, and then implement the best interactive experience that fosters exploration and consumption. Leave the physical layout for the history books.

A tale of missed opportunity: the Subscription page

I choose my words carefully, so it is without hyperbole that I say the subscription page shocked me.

(NB: This is the Canadian view of the page, but the US view is not dissimilar.)

Why does this page have:

  • A completely different set of design and branding guidelines than the rest of the site, thereby abandoning the gravitas and brand affinity that would help sell a subscription?
  • No messaging on the quality of the Times’ offering, its history, or its journalistic depth—no qualifiers or differentiators?
  • Crossed-out ‘original’ pricing using red ink, a cheaper stylistic approach that’s not in line with the brand?
  • Non-sensical tier names like ‘All Access Plus’? (It’s either ‘All Access’ or it’s not.)
  • Comparison tables where, at first glance, it takes actual work to figure out exactly what’s different between them, because all the differentiators are pushed down the page, and higher tiers specify lower tier benefits as a single line item in the table (e.g. ‘Basic Digital Access Features’)?
  • Large, black Apple Pay buttons that unnecessarily draw the eye, and add confusion—what’s the difference between selecting “Get All Access” and selecting “Buy with Apple Pay”?
  • A valuable sales heading at the top (“Choose how you want to experience…”) that gets visually drowned out by the large areas of saturated colour in the comparison tables, and therefore overlooked?
  • Lots of small Terms and Conditions text with generous use of bold, all distracting from the main sales messaging and benefits? (I believe this is to do with Apple Pay, but how it’s been implemented is inexcusable.)
  • Blue text (e.g. “Basic Digital Access Features” under “All Access”) that implies a link but is not selectable?
  • The Times’s “T” in an orange star badge on the top two tiers’ images, presented without explanation? (Spoiler alert: I think it’s to indicate Times Insider, but that T-in-the-badge branding is not used on anywhere on the Times Insider page.)

I’ve conducted thousands of one-on-one test sessions and site reviews, and from that experience, I am guessing this page makes many users work far too hard to understand the details that really matter. Which, on the subscriptions page, is a huge concern.

From my initial assessment, this page—and the ways the subscriptions are structured and named—is the single biggest opportunity for the Times to quickly improve its subscription conversion rates.

Basic navigation issues

Without going into great detail, there are basic navigation issues with moving around the site, issues that I believe are causing unnecessary frustration for a large number of more casual site users.

Let’s look at one example. Consider the homepage’s header area:

I can get to various sections through the ‘Sections’ option, top left, or the using the across-the-page navigation below the masthead: “World, U.S. Politics” and so forth.

But when I navigate to the Sports section using that across-the-page navigation option, I get this:

Forgetting, for a moment, the design issues: the navigation I just used to get here is no longer present. Compounding this issue, the ‘Sections’ navigation option has (on my wider browser window) moved further to the left of the header area, making it easier to overlook.

One of the tenets of great user experience—ensuring the user always knows where they are, and how they can progress—has been broken.

And there are many other navigation issues, which are especially poignant when you think that the Times is a destination site, competing with heavyweight platforms such as Facebook and other destination sites that put extraordinary amounts of time and energy into ease of interaction.

Where next?

The publishing industry’s difficult transition to digital is often painted with the publishers as victims to circumstance, unable to prevent a relenting digital transformation where distribution costs tend to zero, information sources are a dime a dozen, and people casually forego quality for convenience.

I don’t agree. The truth of the matter is that it’s the company’s perspective on their role in this digital migration, and how quickly they can change company culture and embrace the new opportunities, that are the limiting, or enabling, factors. The readership will adapt, and follow, and quality will always rise to the top when given a decent chance.

So the Times’ success—and not just their financial stability, but growth—is 100% within their control. All the issues here are addressable, and some, such as the subscriptions page, can be addressed quickly and easily.

That’s what inspired me to get up at 2am to write this article: the opportunity is all there for the taking, and I really want the Times to thrive. Here’s hoping.