You Can’t Just “Redesign” Digital News

I admire Andy Rutledge for saying what he thinks, even though I don’t always agree with what he says or how he says it. Earlier this week, his article on how the news is broken ignited a series of posts and heated discussions on the topic. Many of them disagreed with him, citing that his viewpoint was naive and narrow-minded. Interestingly enough, many dissenters of Andy’s post also suggested their own solutions. I can’t help but ask, “If Andy hasn’t found the solution, what makes you think that you have?”

Battling Speculation with Speculation

Discussion is always beneficial, especially when focused on improving the way people consume media. My issue here is that Andy does not experience in designing news sites, thus his solutions are based on speculation. Because his goal was to provoke discussion, this is OK. Those responding, however, seem to be suggesting serious solutions which are also based on speculation.

The result is a circular argument in which everyone assumes they know the right solution, despite the fact that no one has the knowledge that would be required to find it. Reading a few usability books or assessing a site based on your set of aesthetic values will not lead you to the right solution. Even haven worked on a media site before is irrelevant, as they are all dramatically different in content and users.

Digital news is still finding its way, the industry faces countless unique design challenges. The amount of content that even small news companies publish online, dwarfs almost any other industry. Even more complicating is the diversity of subjects covered. How do you engage a global group of users, all looking for different content on a site that publishes 1500+ articles a day? I will give you a hint, traditional design techniques like “more white space” is not the answer. In fact, we have yet to find the best answer.

We Are Smarter Than Them? Really?

What disturbs me most is that amount of respondents that presumed they were smarter than news designers. Does anyone really think they the designers never thought to remove article excerpts from topic pages? The sites coming under fire are multi-million dollar corporations. Their existence is directly tied to sites performance. If you don’t think they have designers smart enough to do usability tests or design based on site metrics you are crazy. I assure you that any major media site makes design decisions with evidence, not whim.

Unfortunately, the most valuable outcome of these discussions have been some designs that would be great for a designer’s newspaper. The discussion has clearly been focused on designers personal preferences, even though designers are far from the average users. There is no empathy for the average person and their needs.

What Needs to Happen

The media industry could advance so quickly if even one organization stepped up and published their discoveries. Knowing what design decisions had what implications would not only silence the naysayers, but allow digital news to become truly enjoyable.  I think everyone accepts that right now digital media is a compromise. It is difficult to navigate through, hard to read and impossible to filter… but social behavior speaks loudly and apparently the convince is worth it. If the designers of the world could better understand user behavior innovative solutions would naturally result.

Furthermore, the organization who is brave enough to expose their process would surely benefit as a result. Making the users a part of the process would not only help them better understand the balance of business and user needs, it would result in empathy for the organization. This is what social media was supposed to be about in the first place.

Long Term Solutions

Ultimately it is silly to believe that digital news will be “fixed” through design treatment. The challenge is bigger than that. A completely new approach is needed, one that no one has found yet. This is not the first form of traditional media that has had trouble adapting to a digital culture. The music industry was singing doomsday songs as people per-claimed their distaste for physical CDs and scoffed at paying for MP3 downloads. Yet while the horizon was bleak for record companies, Apple found a way to make buying music more convenient that stealing it.

While digital news doesn’t need its own “iTunes,” it does need a holistic solution. Some smart individuals will come up with a game changing approach to digital news and it won’t just be a matter of organizing content, multi-device compatibility and visual design.