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.


Ryan Sholin says:

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.

Andrew says:

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.

[…] is just part of what I was trying to get at earlier with my post on minimalism. Good to see it’s supported by user […]

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