02
Feb
10

Misreading What Works in Digital Space

[February 2, 2010]

Since their origin in the 18th century, print magazines have captured the attention of millions of subscribers, offering news, gossip, advice, entertainment and even spiritual guidance.

Over time, magazines thrived, generating billions in advertising income. Initially, I’m sure, publishers assumed it would be easy to duplicate that success in digital space. Putting a popular product in a popular medium ought to have been a no-brainer.

It hasn’t worked out that way, but I’m not convinced it has to do with an actual lack of interest in reading online or off. Or rather, it’s not so much about reading per se, but about format and presentation.

Take, for example, the layout of People Magazine’s digital counterpart. Here’s an inchoate mishmash of mismatched sizes and styles. It’s a look one could easily achieve offline with a pair of scissors and a jar of what used to be called “library paste.”

Calling California Closets.
Where does the publisher expect users to look? Despite decades of market segmentation theory, there’s no effort to guide targeted users to targeted segments. Oh, sure, there’s a navigation bar, but this confusing array of misaligned photos competing with undifferentiated stacks of story links is an invitation to click away.

Though similarly cluttered, the grid-like design of the Sports Illustrated home page divides the page more convincingly into interest areas. Instead of compelling users to take everything in at once, the layout encourages them to take it step by step. Meanwhile Time’s judicious use of white space and better feeling for proportion creates a buffet effect: disparate items arranged in a slightly more appetizing way.

A different tack is taken by O Magazine, where several featured items are each given the same weight, making them easier to grasp. Fighting this somewhat more elegant look is a feature found in Web sites of all categories: the independent right sidebar.

Often, such sidebars are in an unrelated style and crammed with an unpleasant jumble of offers, promotions and teasers. Here, at least, there’s an effort to give this sidebar material a unified look but, as a whole, it simply does not resonate with the remainder of the home page.

Read me (Some assembly required).
Ultimately, what these layouts have in common is an atomization of content, resulting from an unreasonably dense array of content modules. While I understand the desire to lure users into interior pages with the promise of riches to come, I believe a home page has a more important task: To create a welcoming environment.

In other words, brands need to recognize that a successful Web site is a multidimensional experience, not a static list of “offerings.” People come to People magazine for gossip. There’s a buzz, a thrill that people.com lacks entirely. If, instead of that excitement, users find a slapdash array of words and pictures, is it really any wonder “no one reads online?”

Dictating copy with “natural law.”
As I see it, this confusion of cause and effect is destined to perpetuate the very trend publishers and journalists bemoan. In the last few years, for example, a well-regarded user experience theorist has conducted what appear to be exhaustive eye-tracking studies, demonstrating how people read online. Based on such evidence he has developed an exhaustive theory of how one should write for the web. In fact, he has a rule for everything.

As cogent as his analysis might be on one level (and perhaps some of his insights may prove useful in some contexts) it has a fatal flaw. His conclusions take no account of the impact of visual organization on readability, comprehension or retention. It’s as if he believes that current Web design practice were born of some immutable Natural Law to which Copy must conform.

Excuse me, but that’s absurd.
If we believe people have trouble reading online, the solution is not to “write for the Web,” but to create layouts that actually function, layouts that allow people to do what they have done since the first magazines were published over 200 years ago: Read.

While it’s true that digital space is a new medium and, as such. is rapidly creating its own written idioms, we can’t address the problem by subjugating Copy to the demands of Design. And certainly not Design as practiced byNewsweek, where boxes of content appear in a jumble of weightings, categories, sizes, proportions and meanings. If we really believe the consumers aren’t paying attention, we’ll need to take a better read of the challenges ahead.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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