For much of the last year, my colleagues and I have been working through a redesign of the home page of our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com. From whiteboard sketches and Google docs to Dunkin’ Donuts and the occasional conference-call squabble, we completed the project thanks to the standard tools of 21st-century workplace collaboration.
What was surprising, though, is how quickly the undertaking turned from “sprucing up the home page” to “what is our mission and how should we achieve it?” Midway through the process, in fact, we sought to avoid referring to the project as a redesign at all. That seemed to trivialize it, suggesting a facelift or a fresh coat of paint. The goal, we realized, was more strategic than aesthetic.
As it should be. A lot had changed since we last revamped the home page in early 2010. Perhaps the biggest difference was the size of the audience, which grew from 3.8 million monthly unique visitors in February 2010 to 12.5 million in October 2012 (Omniture). Likewise, we have about three times more daily visits to the home page than we did back then. For all the side-door social and search referrals (which are by far the major drivers of our audience), the home page still claims between 15 and 20 percent of our daily page views. Now that it was attracting nearly 300,000 visits a day, we needed to serve those readers better.
The goals we set out to accomplish, listed below, are hardly unique to The Atlantic. But familiar growing pains are not necessarily any easier to soothe. We tried, quite deliberately, to use the design process to fix problems and improve user experience. The mission included:
• Give the home page more visual oomph. We went with a larger lead photo and lead headline, and allocated more real estate to promoting our visual features, “In Focus” (our photo section) and video. We also adopted new typefaces and a cleaner look. I may sound confused; I just said a few paragraphs ago that the mission of the project was strategic, not aesthetic. That’s true, but one strategic goal was to flex some visual muscle – to reflect the more visual nature of the site, to keep pace with other sites that publish much larger home page photos than we do even now, and to ensure the focus of the page didn’t shift too far toward ever-more sophisticated and visually emphatic ads.
• Drive readers to the interior pages of the site. Six months ago, I wrote in this space that the home page matters, “but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think.” The argument was that the home page is critical for conveying the sensibility and values of a site, for serving as a statement of the brand. So the page mattered even if it wasn’t triggering very many clicks, at least relative to social and search. True, but why not optimize the page (and all our pages) to drive depth? With the new design, we have introduced skyboxes on all pages as well as what we call the Belt on the second screen of the home page. Now we’re promoting 18 stories on the first screen and a half, compared to 13 before. To our eyes, at least, the page doesn’t seem busier.
• Fight the tyranny of the “right rail.” The clickstream data shows that the standard right column of a page has become easy for readers to overlook. That long gutter is a line that eyeballs just don’t cross. Unhappy about giving up 40 percent of our page, we decided to reclaim that real estate as a place for compelling content. To do that effectively, we got rid of the gutter.
• Make the bottom half of the page more dynamic. In the 2010 redesign, we tried to make the top of the page look sharp. But we failed to require the same ambition of the rest of the page. One exercise we’ve been going through in the last year: call up a site, scroll down one or two screens, and then ask ourselves, How does that look? More and more we came to admire those sites that put real effort into the second, third, and fourth screens down. So we’ve tried to bring strong design to the whole page, not just to the top.
• Reflect the important role of social media. The Most Popular box tells readers what stories others are reading. Our social strip at the bottom of the page goes a bit deeper, indicating which stories are popping on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and StumbleUpon. (We’ll be adding more services as our analytics permit.)
• Give more of our on-staff writers regular presence. Our new Writers module promotes the latest posts from a fuller range of journalists on our team.
• Create a higher-impact experience for advertisers. For both the edit and sales teams, clutter is the enemy. To cut down on the noise and give the ads more impact, we reduced the number of spots on our home page from a banner and two boxes to one box and one high-impact pushdown unit. In some circumstances, the page features only one standard ad. At the same time, we built in flexibility to test new native promotions that will allow us to surface custom advertiser content, labeled as such.
• Promote our sister sites better. Since early 2010, we have added a new site to The Atlantic portfolio (The Atlantic Cities) and to our parent Atlantic Media Company portfolio (Quartz). With the new home page, we’re allocating space, when editorially appropriate, to teasing stories from those sites, as well as creating a footer that features top stories from all our sites at all times.
It’s been a week since we introduced our new home page. In the coming months, we’ll be altering article and channel landing pages to reflect the new look out front. Of course, even then we won’t be done. In a constantly changing media environment where data and reader comments are both instantaneous, you’re never done.