How can online journalists improve their design, usability and content creation skills? In this MasterNewMedia report journalist Eric Ulken shares some valuable insights on what online journalists can learn from web interaction designers to improve the way they create, layout and distribute their content.
Photo credit: Taketorise Computer
Usability and design should always be major concerns when you decide to post or share content on the web. But what if you have written an excellent article and have left it laying somewhere in a shady corner of your website? People may never find it and your great content may likely lose the attention it might really deserve.
Remember that the Internet (and your website, on a smaller scale) is like a library. You couldn't just hope to enter a library and stumble upon the information you want. You need a catalog, an index of some sort that comprises all the information available with precise location references.
Think about your website. Is your content easy to find? Have you got categories that label all your areas of interest? Do you label your articles with titles that express clearly what you are talking about? Are you visible on search engines?
If the answer to most of these questions is "no", here is a simple collection of suggestions you can immediately put to use to leverage what instructional designers recommend when it comes to improve content reach and visibility:
by Eric Ulken
I recently took part in a fascinating "unconference" in Seattle aimed at information professionals of various stripes - librarians, information architects, interaction designers and the like. It is called InfoCamp, and it seems like a natural venue for online journalists too - though there were few in attendance.
The sessions covered such familiar topics as information visualization and user-created content, but from a broader perspective than we journalists usually look. This got me thinking: Why should there be such a gap between the information gatherers (us) and the information organizers (them)?
Why do not we look at our content the way librarians do? It begs for classification, cross-linking, mapping and contextualizing.
Why do not we look at the design and functionality of our websites the way interaction designers do?
Most of our sites would benefit from some serious user testing and usability enhancements. In that spirit, here are some ideas I picked up at InfoCamp that online journalists could steal from information scientists:
At university, I had a broadcast journalism professor who used to implore students to "remember Mabel", a hypothetical retiree who represented the regular news viewers of the small TV station where we worked.
When a student would pitch some wacky, avant-garde story idea, the prof. would ask, "Do you think Mabel cares about that?"
In the digital world, it is easier to get a more precise picture of the audience, but it still helps to have some typical users in mind. Interaction designers call them "personas", and often give them names and pictures and even biographies.
Mabel probably represents only a fraction of the audience of most news sites, but an audience could be typified by several different personas. And, while personas will not give you feedback, it can be a useful exercise to put yourself in their shoes on occasion and assess how well you are meeting their needs - particularly if you are an editor making coverage decisions.
If there was a theme at InfoCamp, this was it. Information architects and user experience experts repeatedly cautioned that user feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Of course it is valuable, but often users do not really have enough experience using your site to know what they want, which could result in them asking for features or content they will not use.
Better information can be gleaned by observing how your site is actually used - through site analytics and, perhaps, user testing - and making changes accordingly.
As user testing goes, it is about the simplest form:
You might test user clicks on blue underlined headlines versus black non-underlined headlines to see which results in more clicks, or you might test the language on a button ("Sign up now" versus "Click here to register!"). News sites could extend this idea to the content of headlines.
The Huffington Post has experimented with testing two headlines for a story and, after analyzing early results, going with whichever headline generated the most clicks.
First it was the mechanical term "user-generated content". Then it was "user-created content", which sounded more respectful of the users doing the creation.
The next buzzword - though it is a mouthful - could be "community-curated user-created content", the idea that users should be in charge of moderating each other. The jargon is my invention, but the topic was raised in a fascinating discussion on the motivations and behaviors of users who post content to the web.
We already see community curation on a lot of sites. Wikipedia is an obvious example, but the idea is also represented in comment boards that allow readers to "vote" posts up and down.
Few news sites have seriously embraced community curation, though - perhaps because they fear giving up too much control.
A slide from Vanessa Fox's keynote presentation on search showed that the proportion of traffic arriving at news, sports and entertainment sites from search engines has grown by as much as 30% year-over-year. This trend underscores the importance of search engine optimization for news websites.
Some elements of SEO are technical in nature, but others - such as ensuring key terms are represented in headlines and stories - are the domain of editors.
The biggest potential benefit in search engine optimization comes not on breaking news but on the huge volume of archival content that news sites accrue over time.
Features such as topics pages can help maximize the findability of archived content through search. (See my previous post on the introduction of curated topics pages at Germany’s Spiegel Online.)
Originally written by Eric Ulken for De Nieuwe Reporter, and first published on November 9th, 2009 as What Online Journalists Can Learn From Information Scientists.
About Eric Ulken
Eric Ulken is currently consulting for the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for 5 years until November 2008. From January to April 2010, he will be a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Eric Ulken is also designing an online course on writing headlines for the web for the Poynter Institute’s NewsU. He writes a regular column for De Nieuwe Reporter and he is also an occasional contributor to Online Journalism Review. Eric Ulken is a member of the Online News Association and of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Eric Ulken -
Why Journalists Should Think About Website Usability - Evan Sharboneau
Use Personas To Identify Your Audience - Kirsty Pargeter
Always Evaluate User Feedback - Phil Date
Compare, Measure and Test - Daniel Rajszczak
Leverage Community Curation - Lammeyer
The Importance of Search Engine Optimization - MacXever