Minimalism and my ideal news experience

As I’ve men­tioned before I’ve been using Shaun Inman’s Fever for a while now as my sole RSS reader. The more I use it the more I come to love it and in the last few days I’ve real­ized why: it does exactly what I want it to and no more.

In my case I want to use my RSS reader for one thing: read­ing. This is why I felt that it was worth $30 to move away from Google Reader.

As Google has devel­oped Reader over the past years and months I’ve felt that they’ve strayed from the orig­i­nal idea of pro­vid­ing a light­weight and fast way to stay on top of the news that’s impor­tant to you. If I want to share an arti­cle, save it for later, email it to a friend, or “like” it I have my own ways of doing that and don’t want those fea­tures to infringe upon the pri­mary pur­pose of my RSS reader.

The fact that I was so will­ing to drop $30 on a prod­uct that I couldn’t even use a demo of is a tes­ta­ment to my faith in Shaun Inman as well as my sim­ple frus­tra­tion with Google. It also got me think­ing about news in gen­eral and the expe­ri­ences that most (if not all) major news orga­ni­za­tions provide.

The largest prob­lem that I cur­rently see with the home­pages of most news sites is that they’re try­ing to be like Google Reader; that is, they’re attempt­ing to pro­vide all the tools and infor­ma­tion that all of their users could ever want. This ulti­mately leads to nowhere good and results in all users receiv­ing a mediocre expe­ri­ence with none get­ting exactly what they want.

The highlighted portions are what I'm actually interested in.

The high­lighted por­tions are what I’m actu­ally inter­ested in.

Take The Guardian for exam­ple. This is a news orga­ni­za­tion that is gen­er­ally praised for its site and has won many awards for their work. What hap­pens when I visit their home­page though and high­light just the infor­ma­tion that I’m actu­ally inter­ested in? The result is to the left and is not very pretty.

Even some­one like myself who loves read­ing and is inter­ested in every­thing from pol­i­tics to sports to music to inter­na­tional rela­tions and more is left want­ing with The Guardian’s site.

A lot of space is devoted to con­tent that is not at all inter­est­ing to myself nor even rel­e­vant in some cases. Even with a user account cre­ated with The Guardian the site offers up irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion and pro­vides for no appar­ent way to cus­tomize the content.

Part of the min­i­mal amount of infor­ma­tion that The Guardian col­lects is my US Postal code. However, even with this entered the site still shows me the cur­rent weather in London. Other wasted spaces on the site attempt to pitch me jobs, dat­ing, web search (give me one good rea­son why I shouldn’t just go to Google), some­what sleazy offers for travel and DVDs, and a whole bunch of sto­ries that I frankly don’t give a damn about. If this is what counts as the “Website of the Year” than that’s just sad.

The highlighted portions are the articles that I'd actually be interested in reading.

The high­lighted por­tions are the arti­cles that I’d actu­ally be inter­ested in reading.

Looking at the New York Times though is even worse. The Gray Lady does a lot of things well but pro­vid­ing an even half-way nav­i­ga­ble home­page is not one of them. I’m bom­barded with arti­cles to read, but out of all those arti­cles there’s only a few that I care to read.

Like with The Guardian I have a user account with the Times, for what that’s worth. It doesn’t really get me much of any­thing on the home­page besides a link to man­age my account and alerts. No cus­tomiza­tion, font pref­er­ences, or any­thing really.

Here is where I see the solu­tion resid­ing for news orga­ni­za­tions large and small. The user account that a lot of news sites allow for ought to be about one thing: per­son­al­iza­tion through min­i­mal­ism.

I’m not talk­ing about min­i­mal­ism in the design sense, although that could be one facet of it, this is more about min­i­mal­ism in terms of the expe­ri­ence and the con­tent. News sites need to shrink the amount of infor­ma­tion that is pre­sented to the user. Furthermore, the infor­ma­tion that is there needs to be per­son­al­ized to the user.

My ideal user account with a news site could include the following:

  • Geographical loca­tion — This could be the basis for weather infor­ma­tion, events updates (i.e. con­certs, speeches, plays, movie times, etc.), and even a way to high­light news sto­ries from around the coun­try that are rel­e­vant to one’s location.
  • Segmented con­tent — Allow for a user to select which aspects of ancil­lary con­tent to show. Perhaps I’m actu­ally look­ing for a job in London; if so, then hav­ing The Guardian show me a list of recent job post­ings would be great. The same ought to apply to clas­si­fieds, dat­ing, and hous­ing links. If I’m inter­ested than I want to see them, oth­er­wise they’re in the way.
  • Reading habits — This ought to be the crux of the account. A news site should allows users to opt-in to the abil­ity to track which arti­cles they are read­ing. The meta­data that is ide­ally asso­ci­ated with these arti­cles could then be lever­aged to dig up sim­i­lar sto­ries that share cer­tain infor­ma­tion. The way I like to think of this is hav­ing a Pandora for the New York Times. Just like there are thou­sands of musi­cians out there that I don’t know about that per­haps might inter­est me there are prob­a­bly thou­sands of New York Times arti­cles and mul­ti­me­dia that would inter­est me if I only knew about them.

Combine the above fea­tures and even a news orga­ni­za­tion like the New York Times with its tremen­dous amount of con­tent could pro­vide a home­page that is rel­e­vant, clean, and targeted.

Not only could this ben­e­fit a news organization’s seri­ous read­ers but it could ben­e­fit adver­tis­ers too. Think of the rel­e­vancy a home­page that dis­played con­tent based upon pre­vi­ous read­ing habits would contain!

This surge in rel­e­vancy could be lever­aged by a news orga­ni­za­tion to tar­get ads based upon what con­tent a reader is inter­ested in. Theoretically this could lead to an increase in value to the user as well as adver­tis­ers. Look at the pre­mium rates that adver­tis­ers with The Deck and Fusion pay for ads that they know will be seen by an inter­ested audience.

If a news orga­ni­za­tion were to pair this rel­e­vancy with vet­ted adver­tise­ments then things could really start get­ting inter­est­ing. This could go a long way to solv­ing the per­pet­ual ele­phant in the room: the busi­ness model.

For news orga­ni­za­tions to sur­vive with any type of busi­ness plan they will need to make them­selves valu­able to users instead of try­ing to make users more valu­able to them. The first step toward this will be in orga­niz­ing and man­ag­ing con­tent in such a way that it is eas­ily digestible by the user. Bombarding them with a home­page that fea­tures arti­cles and links to all sec­tions of a site is not the way to go about doing this.

3 thoughts on “Minimalism and my ideal news experience

  1. From the YMMV file, I actu­ally find the home­page a pleas­ant place to hang out and scroll around. Lately, of course, I’m drawn to my TimesPeople bar across the top, so rather than scan the page look­ing for some­thing inter­est­ing, I just pop open the bar and scroll through rec­om­men­da­tions from my friends there. It only takes sec­onds, and I’m deeper into the site, read­ing more of a story than I would if I had just clicked a head­line on the home­page with­out the recommendation.

    Interesting: I think I’m also read­ing deeper into the story because I want to know if I should mash that Recommend but­ton myself.

    • That’s an inter­est­ing point Ryan and I do think that the TimesPeople bar is a step toward the right direc­tion. However, it’s still rely­ing upon the user to under­stand what it is and to remem­ber to click that Recommend button.

      For it to really take flight I think that it’d have to become a fea­ture that relies only upon the ini­tial user action. In other words, I think a rec­om­men­da­tion engine would be far more pow­er­ful if after the ini­tial “Yes I would like to enable this fea­ture” it did all of the heavy lift­ing by index­ing con­tent, meta­data, etc. and auto­mat­i­cally used that to rec­om­mend other stories.

      Just my take though, Like you said, your mileage may vary, and if the TimesPeople fea­ture works for you than more power to you.

  2. Pingback: Readers want to control information overload « Diversions

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