Could ugly, cluttered news site design drive visitors to the mobile web?
The rush to create news apps for smartphones and tablets has spurred great creativity—and occasional elegance—among mobile designers. But meanwhile, news websites have been suffering from advertising clutter that sometimes reaches bizarre proportions. This analysis, with some vivid examples, was offered this week by Frédéric Filloux, general manager of France’s ePresse digital consortium…
The rush to create news apps for smartphones and tablets has spurred great creativity—and occasional elegance—among mobile designers. But meanwhile, news websites have been suffering from advertising clutter that sometimes reaches bizarre proportions.
This analysis, with some vivid examples, was offered this week by Frédéric Filloux, general manager of France’s ePresse digital consortium…
In his post Proof by Mask, Filloux notes: “Web design is in bad shape. In the mobile applications boom, news-related websites end up as collateral damage. For graphic designers, the graphics tools and the computer languages used to design apps for tablets and smartphones have unleashed a great deal of creativity. Happily, we just stand at the very beginning of a major evolution in news-related graphic design for apps.”
But there’s a tradeoff, says Filloux: “This new [mobile] world proves to be a killer for the traditional web which, in turn, seems to age fast.”
According to Filloux, despite the promise HTML5 offers to improve the design of news sites and display advertising, so far it hasn’t really taken off. “Reasons are many: backward compatibility (not everyone uses the latest web browser), poor documentation making development uncertain, stability and performances issues.”
Filloux showed several national daily news sites from the U.S. and Europe, with ads and other non-news content masked out by bright red rectangles. This is an exercise that every news site publisher can—and probably should—duplicate.
Of course, the proliferation of space-hogging and often ugly digital ads isn’t news to anyone who visits news sites. As news organizations scramble for revenue, advertisers have gained leverage to demand more—and more prominent—digital space.
The resulting ad-heavy homepages make business sense—but the result is visually “appalling,” said Filloux. He also showed how article pages often cram even more ads and promotions ahead of news content.
Filloux notes the disconnect that has emerged between the news web design environment and the news website user experience: “The weird thing is this: On the one hand, web designers seem to work on increasingly large monitors; on the other, the displays used by readers tend to shrink as more people browse the web on notebooks, tablets or smartphones.”
As an avid user of mobile media, especially the mobile web, I’ve noticed that when I’m looking to catch up on the news (rather than find a specific story) I often reach for my smartphone first—not my laptop.
This is because most daily news sites now default to a mobile-friendly layout when accessed by mobile devices. And while most of these mobile news sites are blind shovelware that leave considerable room for improvement of content and usability, they are less cluttered and easier to scan. When I want news fast, they’re often my first choice—even if my laptop and wifi are handy.
On most news sites designed for the mobile web, ads are conspicuously absent. Banner ads generally range from useless to awful in a smartphone environment, and most news organizations apparently haven’t figured out other types of ad placement to offer for the mobile web.
Many mobile news site home pages show no ads at all, and only one or two network-fed banners on article pages. The mobile article pages of the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman Review are a noteworthy exception—click on their ads, which are sold in-house, to get advertiser info that’s actually useful to mobile users.
Filloux is hopeful for the future: “Thanks to the rise of mobile internet, the pendulum is likely to swing back: smaller screens will result in fewer ads carrying more value. Today’s ugliness won’t last forever.”
It’s possible news publishers may have no choice but to redesign their websites, including ad delivery, primarily for mobile users.
Recently the market intelligence firm IDC predicted that “by 2015 most U.S. Internet users will access the Internet through mobile devices than through PCs or other wireline devices.” Also, comScore data indicate that in about a year, most U.S. handsets in use will probably be smartphones capable of offering a decent web browsing experience.
Also most U.S. feature phones now either come with, or will support, better web browsers such as Opera Mini. And new sub-$200 e-readers such as the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox (which are really modified Android tablets that support web browsing, apps, and more) may help more people cross the digital divide, growing the potential audience for digital news (and ads).
So rather than cluttering news sites with more and more display ads, news orgs might do better to learn from mobile design sooner than later and find ways to focus on the user experience for the delivery of both news and ads.
Making news sites uglier and uglier serves no one.
The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.