What The New York Times Web Reboot Gets Right

The Grey Lady went live with its new web design today and Rob Tannen of Intuitive Company gives it a test drive.

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 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.

No Longer a Page-Turner

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.

Comments as Edit Content

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.

New Navigation

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.

Home, Again

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.

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  • Stanley Manley

    It's actually not that responsive nor smartphone friendly. The dedicated app is still preferable than this design refresh. Too bad. Just try to access the new nav hidden behind the super small icon in the upper left. I'm sure there will be many people unintentionally selecting the top banner ad instead of the nav button. The double-tap-zoom approach gets you something sizable to hit, but you can't scroll down the long list of sections without pinching to zoom-out. And you can't say the NY Times doesn't know how to code for responsiveness, because their REDESIGN [ ] page is completely responsive.

    Also, why does everything have to be soo small? On my 30" screen or Retina Display, the body copy is like 7pt. I understand the need for thrift on the printed versions, but part of the beauty of digital is that it's dynamic. Sure, I can manually zoom in and out, but it's just demanding more from readers.

    This is a clunky upgrade :(

  • Interesting how much the redesign draws from its iPhone and iPad apps. But without touchscreen ease-of-use, what used to take one mouseclick now can take two or more.

    I actually preferred the old way of reading comments and the placement at the bottom of the screen made more sense to me: read the article first, then read the comments. Now I have to scroll back up to find the Comments blob, click on that, and then focus on the right hand part of the screen (the article appearing side-to-side with the comments is distracting to me),

    While eliminating pagination has its virtues (I too often clicked on "Single Page") now I don't know how long an article is going to take be when I start reading. Page numbers offer a type of structure that are elegant in their simplicity.

    Finally, you're absolutely right about the home page. It's really the least changed part of the entire web site. But definitely cleaner looking and more readable.