The case for simplification

9:29 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News

I’m going to make a radical confession. I have *never* been a regular news consumer. There are several defensible reasons for this, but my life story isn’t the point here. The point is why, despite several efforts to become a regular newspaper reader, I still haven’t been able to form the habit. If something’s big, Twitter will tell me. I’ve been ashamed of this for a long time (no, really). But recently, I’ve discovered that it’s not my fault for having difficulty consuming news from a newspaper.com site. It’s the site’s fault.

First, let me set up some points. Again, the “why”s of my particular case don’t matter:

  • I wanted to consume my news online rather than in print.
  • I was willing to pay for news online.
  • I wanted to be educated on important issues without being treated as if I had some familiarity with the subject being discussed.

More than six years after I first started trying to develop this online news consumption habit, I’ve given up and just started reading a physical newspaper. I couldn’t figure out why reading the news in print instead of online was so much easier until I got about halfway through Donald Norman’s classic book, “The Design of Everyday Things.” In an era where marketing seems to revolve around giving people whatever they want, in as much detail as they want it, I believe that my difficulty with online news is a common one:

Newspaper websites offer too many options.

Norman’s book describes structures called “decision trees.” The basic principle is that any set of choices can be wide, deep, or both wide and deep.

Wide choices occur when you have a lot of different things you can pick from at this specific time.

Deep choices refer to decision paths with many sequential steps.

A choice that is both wide and deep has many sequential steps, and most steps have many parallel possible choices. Norman’s example of a wide and deep decision tree is a game of chess.

By induction, most newspaper websites are akin to playing a game of chess. There are simply too many things to pick from at any given time. When I read a physical newspaper, I can choose to read one of three to eight stories that appear to me at any given time (a wide choice). Then I can choose to follow the jump or turn the page. When I visit a newspaper website, I can choose to read one of several dozen stories that appear to me at any given time (which often have no more text than a headline). Or I can choose in granular detail the section and subsection I’d like to peruse. Or I can see what’s popular right now. Or I can see what my Facebook friends read. And when I do pick a story, I can see six more stories that are somehow related to the one I’m reading now.

Do you have decision fatigue yet? I do.

Newspaper websites are too amorphous.

There is another barrier to my online news consumption habit: my own OCD. When I am reading a newspaper, I know approximately how much is left unread at any time, and I know when I have finished a section. I can say to myself, “Self, you have now caught up on the news.”

My poor befuddled self cannot do this online. There is absolutely no way for me to know when I’ve scanned through everything that has been posted since my last visit to a section, short of pulling an entire newspaper into an RSS reader. Then I lose all sense of which stories were deemed important by the paper’s editors and which were mere footnotes to the day.

Steve Krug touches on this problem in his book “Don’t Make Me Think.” He likens navigating a website to navigating a store. In both instances, you’re looking for something, but online there are no visual markers to tell you what’s around you. My old boss, Brian Boyer, once told me that he thought about websites in the terms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior design: At every point, you should allow for “a peek around the corner,” a glimpse of what surrounds where you are.

Newspaper websites do a bad job of compiling previous coverage.

The whole notion of the “second-day lede” is outdated. I work pretty long days, I don’t have a radio or television, and as we’ve seen, I have a hard time getting news from actual news sites. That means I get my news in snatches: on Twitter, or from conversation. Then my brain tells me, “Hey, that sounds important. You should probably see what’s going on with that.”

Yet by and large, news websites overestimate my grasp of whatever they’re writing about. If we’re several days into a story, I have no hope of finding the backstory on a newspaper’s site. This makes me sad, because newspapers certainly have done a more trustworthy job compiling the information than anyone else.

Topic pages address this issue to some degree, but they are, for the most part, not very well done. For one, they tend to be in reverse chronological order (which makes great sense if you’re already familiar with the topic). I would love to see tag pages used to this end. An editor could specify which article (or articles) are the definitive ones. In lengthy, developing stories (like Arab Spring), these definitive stories would be numerous. Secondary to that, a reverse chronological river of posts about the subject could update savvy readers with the latest happenings.

(I’d love to see examples of simple, effective topic pages. I don’t know that they exist.)


When I was learning Python, my mentor Mark Ng gave me a helpful piece of troubleshooting advice. He told me to delete code — not add patches — until something worked. I feel this is where the news industry must go. Services like Instapaper are popular for exactly this reason, and newspaper websites are going to have to follow suit. There’s no reason Instapaper couldn’t have been developed by a newspaper, much like there’s no reason Craigslist couldn’t have been developed by a newspaper. But we don’t think in terms of the bare essentials. We think about retention rates and getting people to click to other stories, which usually just ends up in clutter. (One method of doing this cleanly is the sliding banner at the bottom of stories that the New York Times, among other places, has implemented.) Simplification will be a painful move for a lot of people inside the newsroom, but will make the experience painless for the audience. (Especially pissed off will be that bunch that still feels that having a piece of turf on the front page is somehow essential to their success. Newsflash: if that’s what it takes for you to say you’re a success, you probably aren’t serving your audience at all.)


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