Site review:

Written by Adrian Holovaty on August 8, 2002

Farah Iqbal, the designer at The New Zealand Herald Online, told me that site changes are in the works and suggestions would be appreciated.

Let's all help out. I'll go first; others, feel free to post comments below.

  • The first thing that comes to my attention is the large banner ad on many of the pages. It measures 760 by 120 pixels, and it's a whole lotta trouble. Not only is it distracting, it actually slowed my (relatively fast) computer down -- the MP3 playing at the time skipped, and there was a delay in scrolling down the page. This isn't a weblog for online business, so I don't care to debate the financial merits of such an ad, but I strongly urge that this monster be tamed. Having an ad slow down one's computer is annoying and might very well send users elsewhere. One suggestion: Make it a one-frame ad, not animated.
  • Another disadvantage of the ad: Because it's so gigantic, I perceive it as an almost-integral design element of the page. For this reason, the pages that lack the giant ad threw me for a loop. Moving from giant-ad page to no-ad page can be very jarring. As I surfed the site's first few pages, my eyes learned to ignore the ad and begin scanning pages from about a third of the way down. But when I came upon a page that didn't have the ad, it was an uncomfortable change -- like having the rug pulled out from underneath me. Consistency in placement of page elements, including advertising when it's this big, is important.
  • The far-right rail has a similar effect. Sometimes, it's used for vertical ads; at other times, it's used for sidebar information. I have a feeling many users ignore the sidebars because they're in (what users perceive to be) the ad rail. Advertising staffs can say all they want about forcing people to look at ads by placing them in editorial space, but I believe users make quick judgments about what is editorial vs. advertising space and learn to ignore the latter. I think it'd be a better idea to put related content within the content area, but I'd love to hear more opinions on this.
  • Usability of the top-left drop-down menu can be increased by eliminating its JavaScript onchange event. Right now, when I choose a menu option, it immediately takes me to that page immediately, without my having to click "GO". It's great that the "GO" submit button is provided for non-JavaScript browsers, but in some cases (mainly, when using the keyboard to browse), it's impossible to make a choice other than the top link without being redirected. (See Accessible Scripting's informative explanation.)
  • All fonts are set using absolute widths, making it impossible for Windows Internet Explorer users to resize them. (Although a workaround is given on the site's outstanding FAQ page.) Dive Into Accessibility has a great page on this topic, although its solution is a bit too much of a hack. My take on the matter: Use ems instead of pixels.
  • As mentioned before on this site, it would be a good idea to use correct structural markup, such as H1 and H2 tags, for headlines, bylines, etc. Such markup gives text-only browsers a better idea of what kind of content they're displaying. (And that's just one of the advantages.) Also, I encourage heavier use of style sheets in order to separate design from content. Quick tip: The stylesheet's current font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: 19px; font-weight: bold; can be combined into font: bold 12px/19px arial, helvetica, sans-serif, and color: #000066 can be shortened to color: #006. Might not look like a lot, but it saves a lot of bandwidth and cuts page load in the long run. (Here's a useful page on such CSS shortcuts.)
  • It's always good to see breadcrumb navigation! (This is a topic previously mentioned here.) And section names in the left rail are highlighted according to the page you're on. As a result, the site is easily navigable, and that's commendable.
  • The search form is featured very prominently, in the middle of the page and above the news content. It's obvious that making site search easy should be a high priority, but here, the form's dead-center placement almost regards search too highly. As a recent Digital-Web Magazine article explains, searching should be a last resort, not a default method for retrieving content. The key is making navigation prominent and usable. The search form should still be easy to find, just not this easy. For what it's worth, Jakob Nielsen has recommended search forms be in the upper right corner of a site -- sufficiently out of the way, but instantly apparent when users need them.
  • Speaking of site search, what do the percentages next to the search results mean? (See a sample search.) The site's FAQ offers this: "[R]esults are ordered by the relevance of the story to your keyword." Yes, but how are the percentages calculated? They don't mean anything to me unless I know.

I hope that's helpful. Everybody, chime in with your own comments.


Posted by Farah on August 8, 2002, at 6:43 a.m.:

Thanks for the feedback :) All very helpful comments and much appreciated.

Has anyone else got comments they would like to add?

Posted by Nathan on August 8, 2002, at 7:28 a.m.:

I think Adrian is right: If the giant ad position is going to be on some of the pages, it should be on all of them. As for the search line, I'd make a simple change in the way it is designed. Right now the radio button search options appear after the "Go" button. I would do as many other sites seem to and put the options in a drop-down before that button so it is clearer what the options apply to. As far as article pages go, I think including so many other related headlines is very smart, because it lets readers browse without having to return to the index page for a section. I am confused, though, by a few aspects of the implementation. For instance, on this page there is one box with "World News" headlines and another with "Latest World News." What's the difference? More importantly, sometimes the list of related articles in the main content area seems to be used for recent stories and sometimes, as on this page, for related articles from the archives. It is superb to have in-depth archives like that going back several months, but Iwould do something simple -- it could be just adding publication dates next to each headline -- that would let readers know before clicking that those stories aren't current news. Finally, I'm sure this is a content management system issue, but is there anything that could be done to make the article descriptions on the section index pages not trail off with ellipses in midsentence, or to make the caption and photo credit appear next to the photo rather than underneath the story description?

Posted by AgentKen on August 9, 2002, at 9:34 p.m.:

I have a different problem with the front page of the site -- though you should kill that large format ad immediately, I keep thinking the site is about natural gas.

There is very little local identity on this site. I suppose that means that the goal is to cover all of New Zealand. But for foreign visitors, we have no reference point. I can't even tell what city this newspaper is in. Maybe that's deliberate, but our company philosophy has always been to brand locally and regionally -- and that means using design elements that specify where you are coming from (literally and figuratively).

For instance, there is a 310x60 graphic on the top right of our homepage that I think is absolutely useless -- except that it grounds the reader experience be presenting local landmarks that will be instantly recognizable for anyone who lives in or has visited St. Augustine.

Some other Morris sites:

CJOnline - Topeka, Kansas

OnlineAthens Athens, Georgia

SavannahNow Savannah, Georgia

On a similar note, the overall predominance of advertising on the front page (about 35% of the first screen, I would estimate) accompanied with the lack of a solid local anchor (and on this day 8/9, no strong lead news graphic) gives the overall impression that the main focus of this site is advertising -- i.e. sending you somewhere else rather than inviting you to eplore the content.

I would think about a radical redesign concept that emphasizes the core mission of your organization. In the case of the sample above, I wanted to emphasize travel, tourism, and history, while still showing that we had all the news, too.

In general, my philosophy regarding advertising vs. new hole is this: We need to present a news hole that is strong, locally anchored, and reliable, so that we consisitently project an image of being a trustworthy, knowledgable and local source of information. If we can establish that, then people are more likely to trust our advertisers when we do present offers (see above comments on our Visitor's Guide under Lunchtime Links).

So my overall design comment would be: What are you trying to accomplish as a company? Come up with a 2- or 3-point mission for your site and then design from that.

Posted by AgentKen on August 9, 2002, at 9:40 p.m.:

One more nitpick:

Are site visitors likely to know or care what "W&H Websites" are? That pulldown is in the traditional logo spot (upper left) and made it harder for me to figure out what site I was actually viewing.

I assume that W&H are a large Cox-like media company :-), but do your site visitors need to know that immediately? Perhaps a better menu option would be "More Helpful Sites" or "Find What You Need"

Posted by Adrian on August 16, 2002, at 1 a.m.:

Whoa, way to sneak that redesign link in there, AgentKen! I love it. Is that being seriously considered, or have you just been playing around with a redesign?

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