L.A. Times redesign: ‘Blogs were a big influence’

ulken-headshotkopieEric Ulken bereist dit jaar de wereld op zoek naar trends en ontwikkelingen in de online journalistiek. In zijn tweede bijdrage voor De Nieuwe Reporter schrijft hij over de nieuwe lay-out voor de site van zijn voormalige werkgever, de Los Angeles Times (klik hier voor de oude lay-out).

People hate change. In my experience, when websites launch major redesigns, user feedback tends to run about two-to-one against. Sometimes worse. Just think back to Facebook’s last relaunch in March, when a poll famously reported that 94% of respondents hated the change. (The negative sentiment is unmistakable, even if the statistical validity of the poll is debatable.)

By contrast, in the two weeks since the Los Angeles Times launched its ink-stained, blog-inspired redesign, the reaction has been unusually positive. Good vibes from users don’t make for a successful redesign any more than loud criticism indicates a bad one (the much lamented Facebook redesign seems to have actually helped the site’s stickiness). And whether the Times’ efforts are truly for the better won’t be apparent until long-term traffic trends can be analyzed, but favorable feedback from users certainly bodes well.

meredithTo get a feel for the goals, process and immediate effects of the redesign, I did a quick e-mail interview with Meredith Artley, the Times’ managing editor for online and my former boss there. (European connection: Meredith used to run the International Herald Tribune’s website in Paris.)

From the black headlines and navigation bar to the serif typeface and the distinctive inkblot at the bottom of every page, the aesthetic here clearly says print. Are there risks in looking too print-like?
The idea was to connect with our heritage and all the good things that come with it, including world-class journalism, elegance, simplicity, readability. We also set out to be modern and interactive. So the design achieved a unique balance that’s rarely seen on the Web – that balance is what a lot of our wonderful readers have been responding to so positively.

What other sites (including non-news sites) did the Times look to for inspiration?
We looked at sites that have intuitive, horizontal navigation and sites that are well organized below the fold. Blogs were a big influence on the homepage and section front design – we wanted the page to feel scrollable and edited as a whole. Too many sites only focus on “above the scroll.”

Describe the process. Was this an in-house project or was an outside design firm used? What parts of the organization contributed ideas and know-how? Was there any user testing done?
We had lots of input from inside and outside the company. The redesign was part of a larger effort by the Tribune company to improve all of its “newspaper” sites. Our team in Chicago gave us a process, a wireframe, project management and outstanding tech support. We had freelance designers provide thoughts early on, and then our lead Web designer, Stephanie Ferrell, took all that work and made it sing. We sought feedback from readers, clients, a large audience at LAT and the Tribune Company at large at various stages in the ramp up to launch. Casting a wide net for feedback was a big key to success.

A consistent challenge for general-interest news sites, including the Times, is keeping people tuned in. How does the redesign address the lagging time-spent metric?
Our time spent is doing well – increasing year over year while we are also getting more “non-loyal” traffic from Google and other sites. So that’s a great sign. We achieve this by doing powerful journalism 24-7 in a variety of formats, by engaging readers and by showcasing all that wonderful content in a variety of ways around the site.

Since the launch, have you picked up any changes in user behavior that might be attributable to the redesign, or is it too early to tell?
It’s too early to tell anything on a grand scale. We do see that almost every story we put in the “In Case You Missed It” area at the bottom of every page on the site ends up in the most-viewed list. A great sign that readers are scrolling and appreciating the serendipity that feature provides.

Anything you wish you could have accomplished in this redesign that will have to wait for the next iteration?
With any site redesign, there’s a list of must-haves and would-love-to-haves. We definitely have features that we will be rolling out in the weeks and months to come. This redesign really is a first step – a new look and feel, a crisper, easier to navigate site. We can and will build on this, so stay tuned…

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