The latest conversation in web design has been, how do we reimagine the web for a mobile device? Do you design your mobile site first, then supersize it for PCs? Or do you wrap all that content in an app and bring special functionality to tablets?
For most websites, it’s an ongoing debate between aesthetics and user experience. But for the New York Times, the stakes are much higher. The way a story is consumed is intrinsic to its meaning—even its perceived veracity.
"We want to make sure we’re shaping our journalism in a way that does not reflect a bias to a particular medium or format," Ian Adelman tells Co.Design. He’s the director of digital design at the NYT. And his team has recently announced its first major redesign since 2006—a responsive site that offers a unified, airier experience across platforms.
Skeptics will call the redesign mobile-first me-tooism, but it’s about more than that. For the NYT, it’s a battle against a new type of journalistic bias—presentation bias. A unified redesign isn’t about reaching millennials on their latest smartphone; it’s a quest to present content in the least adulterated way possible.
At first glance, you may confuse NYT’s prototype for a downloadable app (though in fact, its apps are entirely different products). Ajax coding creates a seamless feel, eliminating the blinking of page refreshes. Stories are infinitely scrollable rather than paginated. And all of the interactive elements—the photos, video, and infographics—are no longer relegated to a tiny media link on the left-hand side of any story. They’re embedded directly inside the text.
"Certainly, for some elements of the interface for this web experience, some people have said they’re ‘influenced by mobile,'" Adelman says. "I think that’s true. Any time a design, method, or interface becomes familiar, it becomes available to use … it broadens the palette quite a bit."
In other words, the New York Times didn’t change alone. We changed, too. Sure, its data-dense wall of links has been abandoned for refreshing white space—and that seems so obvious in hindsight—but three years ago, this design would have been an unfathomable gamble. Big media sites are traditionally built with as many links as possible specifically to create friction, to give the reader as many entry points as we might click. Now that we, as media consumers, have become accustomed to smoother, well-curated mobile media experiences—the Instagrams, or even the Pinterests—a simpler NYT makes a lot more sense.
That lowered risk carries through to layout experiments, too, because mobile apps haven’t just taught us to enjoy the serenity of open layouts; they’ve trained us to demand iteration.
"We’re really looking at this as an opportunity to treat our website in the way you expect other apps to be treated," Adelman says. "You download the iPad app, and you expect that in the coming weeks or months, you’re going to get new features. That’s really where we want to be with our web application."
Case in point, the NYT redesign is a pre-beta prototype that will roll out to just a few users while designers continue to tweak the overall layout. And the area up for the most debate may be the refreshed user comments. Commenting matters on most sites. But when it comes to the NYT, everything is elevated. Commenting is suddenly a matter of freedom of speech.
Formerly tucked beneath each article, comments were always displayed, and always displayed in the same place. Now, most comments are buried a click away. But here’s the counterbalance: Once you make that click, the comments show in full directly beside the article. The commenters suddenly have equal footing with the writers.
"It’s interesting to hear reactions on this. Some people see it as an elevation of comments; some people see it as a demotion," Adelman says. "But we refer to them in more places. We think it presents a nice commenting experience. What remains to be seen is if it’s a useful comment reading experience."
Whether it’s comments or blog posts, the fact of the matter is the expectations are just higher for the NYT, and we see that as much in the things Adelman is willing to do as the things he’s not. Take the navigational menu, which expands from the top bar to reveal every section inside the NYT. The long list shadows over his spartan redesign like a zeppelin. What if he just eliminated it? After all, in the age of the Internet, isn’t the very idea of "sections" in a newspaper somewhat dated?
Couldn’t the NYT just know what I’d want to read and serve that up to me via algorithm?
"Hell, yeah!" Adelman responds to that last question. "The fact that we continue to reflect that organization structure is not a statement about how we think things should be consumed. It is a statement about, there are some very natural ways for people to look for things."
Those "natural" ways of looking at things really come down to, again, user expectation. While the redesign does incorporate some algorithmically suggested sections within navigation, Adelman stresses that the NYT simply can’t remove the option to predictably click on particular topics, lest their audience question the publication’s transparency.
"There’s an element of trust that’s important in any relationship, whether it’s with the NYT or another publication, or a tool or experience you’re accustomed to," Adelman says. "You don’t want to feel like things are moving under your feet."
They also can’t merely fill the NYT homepage with articles they think someone might like to read, because then they cease to be what they are—the world’s news, presented without assumptions or bias.
"I don’t think people want a customized version of the NYT homepage. They might benefit from some amount of material focused on their interests, but people come to the NYT because they want the NYT’s take on things."
Some will say the redesign is great. Others will insist that this will be the publication’s end. That’s just how redesigns work. Anything aggressive is polarizing by nature (but for the record, we think it’s tops).
Yet the most ironic part of this whole redesign—and to us, the more relevant side of the conversation—is that, in fact, the NYT needs to change in order to preserve its reliable editorial perspective in a rapidly changing world.
Within their web app, we see this fact in its most literal manifestation—whether you have an iPhone, an Android tablet, or an old laptop that barely loads, Adelman wants the publication to be the same, trusted, engaging experience for you. Layout is no longer a discussion about the page or the screen. It’s finally about the information itself.