On the last day of 2013 the New York Times published an editorial on how e-books change the reading experience in which Mohsin Hamid notes, "often I prefer reading to e-reading. Or rather, given that the dominance of paper can no longer be assumed, p-reading to e-."
Just over a week later we are experiencing the launch of the redesigned NYTimes.com today, one of the most important news sites on the web. What’s most enjoyable about the redesign is that it delivers a useful mix of the relative benefits of both "p" and "e"—print and electronic—reading in a digital experience.
The greatest improvements are ergonomic—articles are scrollable in a single page, replacing clunky pagination. This comes closer to the feel of the long broadsheet format of the printed Times (perhaps unintentional skeumorphism) compared with the more tabloid-like feel of the previous version, which seemed like a cheap way to increase page views for advertisements.
Combined with quicker page load times, the reading experience feels both more natural and higher tech at the same time. I am thankful that I will no longer need to click the "single page" icon before reading a long article.
But "page turning" hasn’t been completely eliminated. Arrows on the right or left edge of the page now offer a way to move between articles (rather than within the article). It’s essentially a virtual newspaper where each article is a single page and each page is one and only one article.
The other major change in article layout is the placement of comments next to, rather than below an article. Click on the "comments" bubble in the text of any article and you launch a scrollable view of active feedback. As Mark Wilson discussed previously, this literally gives any commenter the opportunity to have equal visibility to the article writer, at least momentarily. But it also provides the pragmatic benefit of viewing comments proximally to the article content.
The new design is responsive, accommodating various device sizes and orientations and not surprisingly, is influenced by versions of the Times’ touch-screen apps, particularly with regard to navigation. The navigation is now accessible throughout the site by clicking on a somewhat unconventional menu in the upper left. There are about a dozen links that go to main landing pages, but below them are additional links to go anywhere on the site. In theory, this is akin to thumbing through the newspaper sections while keeping your place on the current page. But in practice it's confusing—two different navigation paradigms—a traditional top- level approach and a cascading tree, are combined into a single menu. I expect many users will find this initially confusing, if not redundant, and ask why this couldn’t be solved with just the cascading tree. It will be interesting to see if and how this changes iteratively.
On the other hand most readers should like the ability to quickly view and navigate to articles within a section using the horizontally scrolling thumbnails at the top of each article page. This gives the reader the feeling of being grounded within a particular section, as with a physical newspaper, rather than just being on an individual page within a vast, diverse site.
If there is one area that’s lacking in the redesign it's the home page. Like many content-heavy sites it is still a "link farm" that exposes the reader to several dozen clickable options. In fact, if you compare the home page design over the ages on this timeline, you can judge for yourself how little it has changed over the past decade. Encapsulating the detailed navigation choices within a menu reduces the visual clutter, but now requires an extra step to access.
One inefficiency that I found frustrating was going from the home page to the Tech section (which I do frequently). Since Technology is not a top level category it requires opening the Navigation menu, mousing down to News, and then selecting Tech from the fly-out menu.
Keen observers might also pick up that article titles on the new home page are no longer blue—they are black. Blue links were the bread and butter of web design, and they still remain within the site, but changing this on the home page is another connection back to the printed version.
There’s no simple solution to the design of the home page. Personalization tools would allow readers to filter down the content, but takes away from the editorial expertise of the newspaper as a presenter of what’s important and interesting, rather than just an information delivery service.
The redesign reasonably gives the best of both worlds—a faster, responsive digital experience combined with a more "newspaper" like reading experience that maintains the New York Times feel.