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The Agony Of Reading On The Web

Published on January 11th, 2012 by Matt Dusenbury

While walking to the local Cineplex with a friend for the last blockbuster of 2011, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of a familiar conversation: will digital become the be-all-end-all of publishing, or will print fend off the onslaught of ones and zeros? Apparently, every conversation I have these days revolves around either digital trends or movies. I suppose it was only a matter time before the two embraced each other in a glorious meta-moment.

Nevertheless, as we traipsed city sidewalks our talk began, with each of us fortifying our positions. Certainly, both camps have their die-hards, sceptics, and hold-outs, but in the battle for supremacy between the two mediums there can be only one, and we were going to flesh out the answer. There was myself, contending that while print has a place in the New World, it will be relegated to the fringes as adoption of smart electronics continues, bringing with it a better media experience. My compatriot, eager as always to go against me, countered my utopianism with nostalgia, saying despite digital’s benefits, it should be treated as an also-ran instead of print’s usurper.

We debated the pros and cons of each as the snow fell lightly. She did her best to impress upon me the beauty of a well-designed printed page you can hold in your hands, while I espoused the Web with its seamless HD fluidity. Unfortunately, the walk was too short, and the weather too cold. We arrived at our destination with our talk solving nothing. It ended in shrugged shoulders and a “To Be Continued…,” with neither of us fully convinced of the other’s position.

I stand by my contention that the Web-side will fast outdo its ink-based predecessor as the dominant medium, but, I’d like to tact on an amendment. While my faith in the Web remains, that doesn’t mean the digital realm is flawless. It’s clear a lot of work has to be done to make things more friendly to the average user. Take just one area of the publishing realm – reading. I can no longer read on the Web. I can’t do it. And it’s not due to a lack of quality content, or its availability. It is because virtually every website I go to for information hates me. News sites, comedy sites, entertainment sites. None of them wants me to actually spend any time with the content. In fact, most websites go out of their way to actively dissuade me from visiting them.

Newspaper publications are the most obvious offenders. Most have a terrible design aesthetic, are cluttered, and use awful navigation. All of this culminates into an awful way to get the news. I dread having to surf over to The Globe & Mail or The National Post or The New York Times. The home page for each site is a garbled mess, with too many sections, pictures scattered amongst headlines, videos and photo galleries mixed with stock market info, and ads (of both the banner and animated variety) highlighted like they’re breaking news. The National Post page in particular offers a pretty poor experience, with large pictures accompanying many of the headlines in each section. It all seems so incoherent, as though stories are posted without thought, reason, or discretion. This isn’t a multitude of options, nor a glorious wealth of information. This is noise. Nothing seems to be a priority. How am I supposed to know what’s important? Moreover, how am I supposed to find the stories I want to read without getting lost or frustrated? Oh, that Navigation bar…

The New York Times is the epitome of awful here. America’s paper of record has crammed every single heading, subheading, category, feature, and want-ad into this thing, and it’s amazingly unhelpful. Worse, clicking on any of these sections initiates another avalanche of information. It requires significant brainpower just to sift through it all. Take a look at the NYTimes’ Technology section above the fold….

CNET reports for the Times, right?

This layout is not intuitive, nor helpful. On the contrary, it’s a profound hindrance, keeping me from finding the articles I want. Instead of a rationally composed page, what we’re privy to is how robots (or rather, their algorithms) think information should be consumed – all at once, and in emphatic gulps. I’m not sure why or how anyone tolerates a reading experience like this.

And speaking of navigation, “Videos” does not belong in the navigation bar. Nor does “Multimedia” or “Photos” or “Gallery” or anything related to the like. Stories should not be segregated by category and media type. Media should be interweaved together to provide a better experience of the subject at hand, not broken down into tiers.

I realize that news sites have other barriers they unfortunately have to deal with during the day-to-day operation, with the constant flow of information being the most obvious. But there is no way that this is the best solution. Rather, what these sites tend to emphasize is the baggage that was carried over from their cousins in print. If we didn’t already have a notion of what the Front Page should be, I doubt very much things would look the way they do today. Unfortunately, what we see is tradition being awkwardly shoehorned in a place it doesn’t belong. It is an ugly exercise.

This isn’t a problem reserved for organizations transitioning their way to an online presence either. Plenty of other web-only publications have problems as well, albeit a bit differently. Take Cracked for instance, one of my favourite comedy sites. Click on any given article and instead you’re greeted with…boxes. Related, and trending, social plugs; they’re all over the page. The actual article barely takes up any real estate above the fold. It’s an assault on reader sensibilities.

And let’s not forget the infiltration of share buttons. Facebook Likes and Twitter Tweets, Stumbles and Diggs, and 48 others that nobody ever uses. I have to decide if I’m going to share the article before I’ve even had a chance to read it. Sharing the article shouldn’t be more important than the article itself.

Then of course there are the other miscellaneous issues when it comes to reading websites. Pop-ups, unskippable/inescapable video ads, and bigger pop-ups that cover the first round of pop-ups to name a few. Perhaps the most egregious of these, though, is when authors and organizations shameless spread an article out across multiple “pages.” Everyone’s come across this at one time or another, no doubt. You click on an article and are presented with only a few paragraphs. Scrolling to the bottom reveals that what you see is merely page one of five. No. No, no, no. This is not okay. Some may argue that this is done in an effort to “reduce reader fatigue” or some other nonsense. That’s a lie. Why is the assumption I don’t want to read the article when I’ve already shown my interest by clicking on it? No, the only reason this is done is to increase clickthroughs, page views, and ad revenue. And speaking as a reader, it is infuriating.

Clearly people who turn to the Web to get information hate all of this. What else but user frustration could account for the rise of Instapaper and Readability, and browser extensions like Safari Reader that cleans up the clutter in favour of simple black text on a white background? In fact, the real haven from these problems is mobile apps. The reading experience of any of these sites is vastly superior on my phone or iPad, with clean style and ads that are practically non-existent. And that’s unfortunate, because that means the reading experience – and my experience with the organization itself – is wholly fragmented between what I see on my phone, and what I get when I visit the “full-fledged” website.

Reading on the Web is broken, and there doesn’t seem to be a fix on the digital horizon. Social buttons will keep multiplying across the internet, news sites will continue to burst at the seams with superfluous data. This is an area where Print is still ahead of its electronic competitor. I’ve never had to stop reading a newspaper because of poor layout intrusive ads. Reading their online counterparts, however, quickly leads to format fatigue. And reversing this trend will be nothing short of a drawn out, uphill battle. Andy Rutledge makes some great suggestions in his News Redux article, but his designs seem destined to go unnoticed. Until things get better though, until common sense and cleanliness take hold, I won’t read another page on the Web unless all other options fail and I absolutely have to.