A Headline Is Worth a Thousand Pictures?

The New York Observer, one of my favorite publications, recently designed their website. I’d like to congratulate them, but the problem is that their new design is incredibly frustrating.

The Wayback Machine doesn’t store images, so I can’t show you their old design. But here’s a screengrab of what their new front page looks like:

Notice anything strange? The four images in the bottom right corner don’t have headlines. Now, I follow movies, so I can guess that the picture of Silk Spectre on the bottom right probably leads to a piece about Watchmen. But is it a review? A feature piece? An interview? A box-office prediction? The site design gives me no clue. Similarly, the picture at the top left of Rush Limbaugh is probably a story about Limbaugh’s recent CPAC speech. But what’s the angle? I have no clue!

Worse are the other two images. One is a generic shot of a New York building. Is the piece about real estate? Or some business that works out of that building? Beats me! And then there’s the picture of the random guy at the podium at the top right. What could that be about? Click on it and this pops up:

Well, that seems interesting. I read a fair bit about political operations. I might want to read that story. But frankly, I have no idea what Joe Crowley looks like, and I suspect that’s widely true. So simply displaying an image of him isn’t going to pique most people’s interest. What a waste! And even if I could pick him out, a tiny thumbnail image isn’t likely to be too helpful (when I first opened the page, I wondered for a half second whether the Limbaugh image was perhaps a picture of Ted Kennedy).

In other words, the new design seems to be meant to require readers to randomly click around on the page in order to find out what stories are posted. The varying image sizes tell us a little about which stories the editors see as priorities — but that’s useless information without knowledge of what the stories are actually about.

Meanwhile, the headlines they do put in are often so short as to be unintelligible. For example, look at the Media section front page:

In addition to two new pictures without text, there’s a black box with the headline “How Did It Come to This?” I couldn’t say, because I have no idea what “this” is. Turns out it’s another death-of-the-newsmedia story following up on Walter Isaacson’s Time piece on micropayments. I’d like to read that story! But it’s far less likely that I’ll actually do so because the new site design seems built to hinder users from actually knowing what stories are posted at any given time.

As if that weren’t annoying enough, once you find out what the story is about, it takes an additional click to actually get to the full text. Minor complaint? Maybe, but why place any extra roadblocks between users and content?

Meanwhile, the big black box at the bottom just links to stories on other website — and they can be accessed via a single click! Curated content from elsewhere is great. But it’s almost as if the Observer would rather I visit other sites than their own.

There is, of course, a text-based “list view” option, but it’s deemphasized with light-colored, small print in the top right corner. Why isn’t the list view the default option? The new design looks kind of interesting, and it’s certainly different from similar publications. But that hardly matters when all it succeeds in doing is adding a set of cognitive barriers that must be overcome by anyone who wants to browse the site’s content!