in orbit

I mostly talk about video games and the world wide web

Feb82011

Gawking

While the Gawker Media collection of sites have never really been my cup of tea for any number of reasons (which I won't get into) you really can't deny the popularity of their network in their respective industries. If you want some video game news out there you need to get it up on Kotaku. If you want the world to know about your new unreleased iPhone, leave it in a bar so Gizmodo can buy it off some guy. If you're a celebrity and want your inner-most secrets leaked to the public then a good bet is to contact someone at Gawker. I'm starting to get catty so I'll just move on, but you get the idea.

For once the news of the day for was not the content of one of these sites but rather how it is presented. Let me get this out of the way first: the new design, aesthetically, is a huge improvement over the old design. The old design was fairly hideous and wasted a lot of space. About the only things it did well were present a ton of the site's most recent content and keep some big-ticket articles of note up at the top. But now, out with the old, in with the new. The new Gawker sites look like a professionally designed iPad app. In fact that's the thing that most people seem to think of first when they see it, which was obviously the intended reaction.

That itself isn't bad, but sadly the site not only looks like an iPad app but seems to function as if it was intended to be one. This fact is made highly unfortunate due to the site being broken in mobile Safari. I don't have an iPad to test it in myself but it's more or less unusable on my iPhone, and I haven't heard much better from iPad owners.

The main issue with the design lies in the right panel which makes itself the height of your browser and presents you with a list of headlines. If you scroll down the main section (the article) the right panel stays put. This sort of design has been implemented with great success on many sites, however none that have such a huge amount of information in the sticky area. Rather than allowing the user to scroll through this list of headlines using traditional practices you must hit a button at the bottom, 'Next Headlines' which will scroll the list down so you can see the older headlines. I haven't found a button to scroll back up yet. You can utilize your mouse's scroll wheel (or multi-touch if you have it) while hovering over that to scroll in both directions, but that solution seems a bit short-sighted for users without either of those things (basically anyone with a non-Mac laptop) and smacks in the face of general web usability/design conventions.

I believe a lot of the design issues could be pretty easily cleaned up if they just unstuck the right pane and put a scroll bar in there (or just building a normal sidebar like every other site). It's funny to think that Gawker, of all sites, thought they could make some kind of amazing shift in news presentation. The key there is you need to build things that make sense intuitively. It's very clear that someone fairly high up at Gawker fell in love with this mechanic and just didn't listen to any negative feedback. There is no conceivable way it got through any sort of focus testing (even just internal use) without any complaints.

This sort of over-engineering can be pretty common in web design and development and almost never results in a good site. Gawker's design might be well suited for a site that only features a small amount of content at a time, or for something of a much smaller scope; things Gawker has no interest in becoming. It's a nice bit of technology to be sure, but I would say that if you have to make a network-wide update explaining how to use your web site then you already have a pretty big usability problem.

At the end of the day things that make the most sense are the ones that work best. The New York Times site is a prime example of that. It's laid out in something reminiscent of the tried-and-true print media formats with all the site's various sections and categorizations within easy reach. It presents an overwhelming amount of information without making the user feel overwhelmed. There's no need to keep every single headline on every page at all times. There's no reason to load articles via AJAX without jumping to a URL. There's a certain level of trust you need to have in your readers. If you have the information that they want, and you put it within a couple of clicks, they will find it.

Creating a successful content-driven web site is half reliant on the presentation and half on the content itself. Maybe eventually someone will figure out a way to perfectly build a news-driven site that allows it to utilize new web technologies in interesting and exciting ways, but I'm inclined to think that sometimes there's just no substitute for the classics.

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Jul. 5, 2014 (8:59pm EST)