The splashy, Snowfall-esque long-form Web piece has changed the role of templates in digital publishing—more and more articles are going off-script with their design. But as those elements become ubiquitous, an expectation rather than an exception for readers and advertisers, it puts a strain on resources.
“I started in magazine design and the idea of doing giant type and bleeding things off the page was wonderful because you almost had a blank canvas,” says Rich Pasqua, chief experience officer for IBT Media. “On the Web, every little whacky design element you want to introduce has to interact with a lot more moving parts. The pages can become cumbersome and potentially dangerous from a technology standpoint. Consistency is a big part of the multiscreen experience.”
Templatizing a special feature or developing simplified workarounds can allow you to achieve the same effects without investing a lot of man-hours and money in a one-off project, Pasqua says.
Offering optionality in design is another way to have the best of both worlds, says Michael Shane, managing editor of Bloomberg Digital. It’s a way of giving creative teams a lot of choices in how they’ll tell a story, without needing bespoke build-outs for all of them.
Bloomberg.com—redesigned earlier this year—makes flexibility paramount. Video and image placements, headline renderings, content recommendations and other features are all malleable. The framework is still consistent enough to support an infinite scroll experience however, and to integrate with Bloomberg’s terminals, television platform and other products in its portfolio.
High-touch experiences don’t have to involve major overhauls. Even minor details built into the framework of a page can provide real value to to the reader without being a burden, Shane says.
“It’s not rocket science, but it’s little, tiny refinements like the progress bar,” he says, referring to a thin bar at the top of every Bloomberg.com story page that shows the reader how far along they are in a given article. “It’s not a big, bombastic change or anything that would be intrusive. It’s little things like that that are going to make a user feel smarter.”
But specialized experiences do have their place, he says.
“People use these models because they offer a tremendous amount of flexibility for storytellers and for advertisers,” he says. “You can do incredibly special things that wouldn’t be possible in a standard, CMS-driven template.”
Page Designing Behind a Paywall
Story pages in a paywall environment require accommodations that aren’t needed for free content. Teasers and conversions become more central to the construction of the site.
Pasqua says one of his top priorities for Newsweek has been experimenting with how to handle readers once they get their fill of free stories (five per month, for Newsweek).
Improving the conversion process has been an early objective. While most Newsweek articles feature a large image at the top with the text starting below, on a reader’s sixth story, that means the subscription module that follows is pushed down the page. Rather than cut content to bump up the subscribe option, they’re suppressing the image once users hit the wall—this way, readers still get teaser text. They’re also playing with removing subscription options—reducing from four to two—and eliminating a click to streamline the process.
“Your priorities shift [in a paywall environment],” he says. “We still have to develop and test, look at the data and make smart decisions from there, but the philosophy is to simplify and pare it down. UX design is both an art and a science. You want to keep people moving around the through the site. You can always find more options [on the navigation bar], but when you’re in the moment—really into that article or that brand or that particular writer—you want to keep that experience flowing. We want to keep them moving and moving quicker.”