How Useful (and Usable) is Your Site?

The always-great John Temple has a valuable post today urging senior-level news executives to stay away from their print editions for a couple of weeks (painful as that may be for some). He suggests that they try relying solely on the Web for a while to get a better idea of how their increasingly digital audience is consuming news and information these days. 

If they would try this, I think newspaper executives would quickly see flaws in their offerings and would also more clearly understand the flood tide that is running. I'm not writing to criticize specifically what papers are doing online. Only to say that my experience being outside a newspaper tells me that other executives while they still have a chance might want to experience the world without their newspaper. I believe it would hasten their sense of urgency. I'm not talking about a sense of urgency about revenue. We know that's there in most buildings in this economic downturn. But is it there to the same degree in understanding audience and what's available to people today? Is it there in making sure their offerings stack up?

It's an excellent suggestion, and I'd take it a step farther: Every editor and publisher should spend some time trying to use their Web site the same ways that readers do, to truly find out what the user experience is for a site visitor. I think they'd get a jarring education in just how crappy and hard to use many (most? all?) newspaper sites are.

In fact, here's a little test that you can give your newspaper or broadcast site to find out how well it's serving the typical user. Try this list of tasks to see how your site measures up. I don't think you'll like what you see.
  1. Without using search, find continuing, in-context coverage of a long-running local story.
  2. Similarly (again, without using search), find a comprehensive package of information (even a collection of past stories) about a significant local icon or personality.
  3. Locate all the coverage and information on the site about a specific local town. 
  4. Starting on a story page (not the home page) quickly find other key information, e.g. the day's top headlines or most-read stories. (Remember, the vast number of readers don't enter your site from the home page, though print-focused newsies obsess about home pages.)
  5. Find a list of the best local restaurants, or ratings and reviews of a particular kind of cuisine, preferably by locality (extra credit: user reviews). BTW: This is why Yelp is really hurting newspapers.
  6. Find a local movie listing, or better yet, a local theater listing and review (extra credit: user reviews).
  7. Find something a family can do for fun this weekend. 
  8. Find any location mentioned on the site on a map—wait, no, you're not allowed to leave the site. No MapQuest or Google maps! 
  9. Using the site's search function, search for a term you know appeared in the newspaper in the past 24 hours. 
  10. Subscribe to your site's mobile alert function (you have one, right?) and see if it's truly useful. While you're at it, be sure to look at your site regularly on its iPhone or mobile version (you have one, right). Is it updated as frequently as the main site? 
  11. Find something in the paper's archives.
  12. How easy is it to e-mail a story, or print it out, or view it on a single page?  
  13. Find a way to quickly contact a specific reporter, or an editor, or anybody at the paper. 
  14. Find an ad you know is on the site. (This drives advertisers nuts, incidentally.) 
  15. How easy is it to place a classified ad online—or to buy any kind of ad?
  16. How easy is it to manage your print subscription online?
  17. Using the site's search function, search for just about anything in the list above.
  18. Now, try the same searches from Google.
I suspect very few traditional news sites will get even close to a passing grade on this test. You'll find that it takes four or five clicks to find that theater review and show time, or a list of the best restaurants (if it exists at all). You'll discover that there's no package of stories about the mayor. You'll be painfully aware of how inadequate your search function is. You'll see why your readers throw up their hands when they try to contact you with a problem, or to buy an ad. You'll realize that vast expanses of your site are all but invisible to Google.

Your readers already know all of this, and it drives them nuts—and it drives them away. These are basic blocking and tackling elements of good site design and usability, but newspaper sites—thrown together haphazardly over the years, without a good sense of what works on the Web and too many legacy bad habits from the print world—come up very, very short. This is how the increasing number of online-dominant readers view your news product. As John Temple said, you need to take a step back from print and view your site through their eyes.

Extra credit: This one's harder to do because it happens infrequently, but next time there's a major breaking news story in your area, try following it entirely through your site. If something's happening during the work day, that's where readers are going—not to local television. Similarly, if a major local news story breaks overnight, your site is the place people are going to look for information that's not going to make the next morning's paper.

There was an unfortunate example of the wrong way to cover breaking local news this week in Connecticut, where an ugly divorce-related hostage situation spilled over into the late-night hours. Most of the state's newspapers and TV stations didn't bother with it or used wires, but the Hartford Courant and New London Day sites stayed with it—up to a point. 

Even though the story's fiery ending came after midnight, the Courant's coverage weirdly signed off at about 10 pm (damn those Tribune Co. budget cuts). The Day stuck with it 'til the end, but its online coverage—like the Courant's abortive coverage—was disjointed, uneven and at times hard to comprehend, with copy that read like a strange combination of news story and newsblog, wild changes in tense, outdated information and an overwhelming sense that nobody in the newsroom was actually reading what was on the site. (And note to The Day: hitting "next" on a photo gallery should show the next photo, not reload the entire story page.) 

I'll bet traffic at both sites spiked because of interest in the dramatic situation. But the readers who came to those sites to find out what was going on deserved much better. Yes, a breaking news situation is hard to corral. But if you're going to try to cover breaking news online, think about serving the reader as well as possible, not just shoveling information onto the site and figuring you can clean it up in the next print edition. That's too way late.

8 thoughts on “How Useful (and Usable) is Your Site?

  1. Brilliant post.
    The trouble in most newsrooms at the moment is that the primary focus is on the printed edition.
    Add that together with newspaper websites which have been created by techies, not journalists or designers.
    This means that most newspaper websites are next to impossible to navigate with poor layouts.
    I agree, it would be reolutionary if the senior editors dumped the print edition (even for a short two week period) to concentrate on the content online, and how it is deliverd and read by the readers.

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  2. This experiment reminded me of an assignment that I was given when I took journalism classes at Iowa State University in the 1990s. The assignment, from my recollection, was to go for a weekend with any form of media and write a paper explaining it to a bunch of aliens. It was a tough assignment to pull off because I really needed to be connected to the outside world. I don’t remember the exact grade that I received for this assignment but it was in the “B” range.

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  3. To, me the test presumes a WAY too complicated news site.
    There’s really only one question that needs to be answered: “Tell me what is going on in my community right now.”
    The problem with newspaper sites is they’re all built around the paradigm of the newspaper — a packaged good with all kinds of goodies in it.
    The best web sites have much narrower focuses.
    Any test like the one above should be reduced to no more than six questions.

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  4. This is a great point to start talking about refining our own site. Thanks. I saw you speak at the AAN convention in Tucson a few weeks ago and I’m wondering which of those points you’d eliminate and maybe which you’d add for an alt-weekly site.

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  5. Jason:
    Thanks for the comment. Good question. I hadn’t thought about how specifically the test applies to alt-weeklies, but I’m not sure it’s substantially different. They should also be providing easy-to-find access to things like packages tracking long-running issues, or local entertainment listings, or local restaurant databases. In fact, that last point was born specifically of a problem I had trying to find a restaurant list on an alt-weekly site!

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  6. I have two other, much simpler, tests on subjects that frequently drive me potty.
    1) Try looking for a news piece that appeared in YESTERDAY’S paper. You know the subject, you know the title, you even know the author. It can take about ten clicks and a lot of scrolling through search results.
    2) Try to find a specific letter from yesterday’s letters page.
    The reason why these are important is that people will often want to comment on, or respond to, or send to a friend something they saw in yesterday’s paper, but will want to do so online. They didn’t have a computer with them when they read it – but they have now. So how do they find what they’re looking for?

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