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Web site design

QuartzCoverQuartz (qz.com) has been one of my daily must-reads since I discovered the site over a year ago. Created by Atlantic Media (which also runs The Atlantic magazine and TheWire.com) Quartz covers international business, sort of. I say sort of because, unlike the Wall Street Journal or even The Economist, Quartz makes no attempt to cover everything. Instead they focus on what they call “obsessions”, which are business topics they believe are really important. For Quartz, that includes China, India, Technology, Media and a regular list of quirky stories that often offer insight into topics you don’t know are important until Quartz writes about them.

But besides being serious, funny, and well-written, Quartz has also drawn attention for its radical Web site design. Most Web sites use a hub-and-spoke design, with a cover page filled with links to individual stories. Not so with Quartz. Type “qz.com” into your browser, and you see the site’s top story, usually topped with a browser-wide photo. Scroll down the first story and you’ll find a second and a third, right on down through an occasional “sponsored” advertorial to the point, maybe 30 feet down, where the scroll ends and you know you have read everything Quartz has posted for today.

Yeah, they add stories throughout the day, but the point is, you start at the top story and read through everything new on the site until you come to the last story you remember reading from your last visit and then you know you’ve finished, read the entire site, and can move on. It’s a feeling much like the one you got from newspapers and magazines. When friends told you they’d read the paper this morning, you know they meant they had skimmed the entire paper from front page to last and at least glanced at all of the headlines.

You can’t do that with nytimes.com or wsj.com or Buzzfeed or Reddit or whatever is your info-source of choice. There is no way to determine when you have looked at everything new since the last time you visited or everything posted in the past 24 hours or whatever.

I loved the design, both for the feeling of completeness I got and also because Quartz was violating every rule of the tired, tired, TIRED look that most news sites have today.

So imagine my chagrin this week when I go to Quartz and discover that they have regressed back to the mid-1990s and added a home page.

Instead of one story at the top, you now get “The Brief”, a digest of the top 10 news stories of the moment. Below that is a great example of what happens when designers are allowed to build web sites without someone from editorial standing behind them with a baseball bat. It’s called “Top Stories on Quartz” and consists of browser-wide photos cropped at an unworldly 10:1 ratio, then darkened, with a headline overlaid. Does the person who “designed” this view the outside world through the slits in the walls of a maximum security prison? No camera takes photos in this ratio naturally and it is very hard to crop stock photos (which is what Quartz uses for most of its articles) to fit properly. So Quartz’s new “cover page” is 10 grafs of text followed by a dark blotchy scrolling mess.

Frankly, I’m disappointed. But I’m very interested in the results of the experiment.

I love the original design. I found that I almost always scrolled down all the way to the bottom of the page and in the process, I read stories that I would not have read if they had been on a traditional hub-and-spoke cover.

With the new design, I find that I skim the index, often see nothing of apparent interest–or, just as importantly, get enough information from the index that I feel no need to click to read the individual story–and move on to another site. That’s certainly not an improvement.

There is a workaround: I’ve quickly learned that if I click on the first story without reading the index I get the original design, with its 30-foot scroll, so maybe Quartz can have the best of both worlds–keeping those of us who like the old, very different approach to web design, while still attracting new readers who need their index.

But I wish Quartz would give us some data on how folks are using the design. Once readers come to an individual story through the new Index or from social media, they jump into the old, scrolling, design. Unlike most other sites, Quartz leaves the sides of the page bare, with no links to other stories or sections. So does scrolling work? How far do most readers scroll before leaving the site? Does the new index drive more traffic from click-throughs than previously scrolled down from the top of the old cover?

My two cents: I believe Quartz’ real problem is not its scrolling non-cover page, but rather that it has spent too little time and effort promoting qz.com and instead has focused too much on social media to promote individual stories. According to NiemanLabs (see article, here), 90% of Quartz’s readers are coming to the site from individual stories and only 10% come directly to the cover page. That sounds drastically wrong. Yeah, lots of folks are using mobile to access the web, but Quartz readers strike me as folks who read from their desktops, so that ratio seems way out of line.

The new design allows readers to skim the site rather than scroll through it, so it seems likely, to me, that fewer readers will click on the index than scrolled down previously. I hope Quartz will share their user data to let us know if that is true or false.

And given how little effort Quartz puts into moving readers from one story to related stories, once they come to the site, their new design seems a big step backward rather than forward. Coming from a site that has been so impressive both with the quality of its work and the boldness of its design, that is a huge disappointment.

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