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 Responses to “Minimalism and my ideal news experience”

  1. From the YMMV file, I actu­ally find the NYTimes.com 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.