As soon as the concept of “user experience” was reduced to another acronym within digital culture (UX) we should have known we had emptied the term of any meaning.
In my mind, the original sin of our digital declension occurred 25 years ago when we started trying to put media of all kinds into the soulless browser interface. Windowed, browser-based media always looked and felt more like an engineering prototype than a medium worthy of a tradition that included newspapers, film, TV and radio. Everything that is bad about digital experiences (clutter, distraction, absence of immersion, inconsistency, etc.) follows that original digital deal with the devil: We get functionality, endless choice and control in exchange for immersive, seamless experiences. (Gaming is the only real exception to that among digital sub-genres.)
As is my wont and twisted pleasure, from time to time I pick on digital publishing’s many annoyances and try to urge my colleagues in media to remember whence they came. Before we started calling it all “content,” we considered “media” (especially magazine media) a marriage of editorial and a carefully designed environment that we took pride in crafting for the reader.
No, we don’t want to hear from you
Browser-based (“desktop push”) alerts are about to become the bane of our existence as some publishers see them as a boon. It begins often with a premature invitation. Too many sites upon your first visit drop down a permission button to activate desktop alerts. Really? You are asking a stranger to begin an ongoing relationship before you have proven any reciprocal value? Gee, Ms. Media Company—at least buy a guy a drink first. Media companies that want “relationships” with readers often denigrate the concept with these moves. In order to be an effective long-term tool in driving direct traffic, desktop alert policies need to be defined by the sender up front and controlled in frequency and nature by the user.
Alas, too many major media brands are bringing to desktop the user-abuse they sharpened in mobile alerts. The definition of “Breaking News” has expanded to include weekend features, product review roundups and social media hits.
Publishers need to rein this in.
Consider weekly or daily “digest” alerts that foreshadow clusters of pieces rather than pinging us as frequently as a helicopter parent texts the kids. Otherwise, desktop push will start seeing a ton of pushback.
If your website is serving the same banner creative on desktop and mobile, one of the two looks like crap. Maybe both. I work on the largest iOS screens available—iPhone XS and iPads—and the problem here is not “banner blindness” so much as banner illegibility.
Most banner ad experiences are set up to fail. They appear on screens like bumper stickers you need to drive up on too close to read. Worse, they erode the overall brand look and feel of well-tuned, responsive sites. Why bother optimizing the look and feel of your pages to adapt to screen size, when a persistent on-screen element, the banner, is reminding the user that the tech continues to get in the way of the media?
Overall, in-stream, large square units are a better solution. Even better is when the persistent banner at the bottom of a page reiterates one of these larger in-stream ads. I have seen Meredith’s flagship BHG.com use this to good effect. Even though the mobile banner is too small on a larger phone, it often echoes the more legible in-stream creative. Ultimately, the answer to this is to have ads that are as responsive as the site. Wake me when that happens.
The incredible shifting website
I am glad some of you publishers are finally seeing real revenue come from evolved automated advertising like programmatic guaranteed, PMPs, header bidding and video. But your visitors are suffering. Specifically, too many web and mobile sites literally shift their layout as one reads down the page because of laggy ad load times or cycling in new ads. The reader is on one paragraph and suddenly new ads push them up or down the page, forcing the reader to find their place again. Yeah I am looking at you CNN, Mediaite, MetaCritic.
There are now rich media leaderboards that slow load onto major media pages seconds after the text loads that you have already started reading. This problem is acute on mobile, where ad loads/reloads send readers actually losing their place on a screen and having to chase the text. Real-time ad feeds are clearly the culprit here. One wishes that adtech put half as much effort towards optimizing user experience on a page as they do optimizing revenue.
The persistent pest of video
Who the hell invented the persistent video box that follows your scroll and blocks out key parts of a site’s own content or navigation scheme? I guess the guy or gal who invented pop-ups thought they had an even more maddening idea. Add autoplay and you have a real monster.
Publishers’ many attempts to book a video view, whether for advertisers or for editorial, look as desperate as they are. Persistent video players on a page make this user want to exit either the video box or the page itself, and as quickly as possible. They corrupt the graphics of a page, block the content you came to see and make us hunt desperately for the close icon.
Rely on your creativity instead, and use a static preview screen to lure the users into tapping the play and unmute buttons. Slapping a frame grab onto the media player just looks like what it is—YouTube grafted into your feed. I prefer a technique we enjoy at Hearst’s Cosmopolitan.com, where multiple higher-res images from the video content are nicely composed beneath a play button. More editorial judgment, less tech…please.
You have a podcast? Really?
Then, where is it? For all of the gushing about the wondrous engagement, brand building and audience expansion publishers are finding in podcasts, they are virtually invisible at most sites.
Lost in a search abyss, found only through a deep bite into the hamburger menu, your audio shows simply are not being integrated into the editorial mix. I rarely find them on homepages, listed among new content or even featured in email newsletters. Considering how much of your content is being read on mobile devices with a fully integrated audio channel, it is astonishing that more sites don’t do what The New York Times has been doing for over a year—making an audio version available in the first few scrolls of the front page.
So there’s also a reason The Daily is among the most successful podcasts in recent years: its company got behind it.
FT.com has another good idea by letting its logged-in users save podcast episodes for later listening. Excuse the pun, but publishers have to stop paying mere lip service to the media channel mobile devices were made for.