ulken-headshotkopieDe Amerikaanse journalist Eric Ulken bereist dit jaar de wereld op zoek naar trends en ontwikkelingen in de online journalistiek. In zijn derde bijdrage voor De Nieuwe Reporter schrijft hij over de vormgeving van Spiegel Online, de website van het tijdschrift waar hij momenteel tijdelijk werkt.

Continuing with the theme of redesigns (last week I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ new look), here’s another major relaunch that took place last month on this side of the Atlantic: Spiegel Online, Germany’s largest news site, introduced a facelift and new features on 18 August. (Disclosure: I am working at Spiegel’s English-language website on a two-month fellowship.)

The biggest new feature is a system of topic pages (“Themen” in German) similar to what’s become common on news sites in the U.S., except perhaps a little more ambitious: Spiegel’s topic pages are cultivated by a dedicated team of editors, and they’re more tightly integrated into the rest of the site than other implementations I’ve seen.

I engaged Stefan Plöchinger, Spiegel Online’s copy chief and production editor, in a brief e-mail Q&A on the changes he’s helped bring about.

A robust topics system is integrated into this redesign. This is obviously more than just a SEO play. What do you hope to accomplish with these Themen pages?

With a single click, readers should be able to get aggregated background information on the central topics of an article. On the Themen pages, they’re presented with news, selected analyses, reportage and interviews, interactive graphics and basic facts, as well as Wikipedia and dictionary entries, all at a glance. In the end, the reader should always feel more comprehensively and deeply informed here than on any other news site in Germany. That’s the goal of the Themen concept.

How many Themen are there? How much maintenance do the pages require? Will site editors curate them in their spare time or will they be maintained by a dedicated staff?

We’ve started with more than 8,000 Themen pages, and that number is already growing quickly. We have four editors attending to the curation of these pages. Some topics get more attention, others less. If a topic is currently hot, the page will get more manual care. If a topic has more of a lexical background, it’s fed mostly from our archive (a refined archive search can be embedded into each page). In between are several gradations, and it’s important to do justice to the topic and its timeliness.

Describe the redesign 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?

The project was developed and executed completely in house. At its core were the senior editors, the art director, the IT group and the four editors who are curating the Themen pages and previously supervised an earlier similar project. The first concept underwent a practical evaluation in a usability test with readers; it was generally accepted by readers, and our early experience with the relaunch indicates the same is true now.

You prominently encouraged readers to give feedback on the redesign through Facebook and Twitter, as well as your own forums. What kinds of reaction did you get? Did you use it to spot real-time problems in the relaunch?

On the evening of the relaunch, we received tips about the usual little bugs that inevitably come with such a project. They’re now being cleaned up bit by bit. There were also some critical remarks about the new layout, and we will make tweaks based on these. This is the first time we’ve used Facebook and Twitter in this way, and we’re quite taken with the results. This kind of live debate with and among readers is really in some ways a more interesting form of conversation than conventional forums.

Anything you wish you could have accomplished in this redesign that will have to wait for the next iteration?

The work never ends. We’re about to integrate some more features into the Themen pages that weren’t must-haves for launch — our country almanac and stock charts, for example. Editorially, the work on the Themen pages is really just beginning. Now we’ll go about implementing these new capabilities in our day-to-day journalism and putting them to the best use.

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