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I hope Gawker & Gizmodo kept a back-up

For obvious personal and professional reasons I have been a fan and a reader of Gizmodo and some of the other Gawker family of sites for a long time.  About two or three weeks ago they launched a re-design of all their sites and I wanted to spend some time with the new design to really understand it before I passed judgment on it. Over my career I have re-designed a lot of big sites and taken them in radically different directions so if the shoe was on the other foot and it was one of my sites I would hope I would get the same courtesy.

The old site was much more of a traditional blog layout with popular stories across the top and then the content running vertically down the page like you have seen on every other blog including this one. The new design has a single full story on the left of the page with a list of story headlines in a column on the right hand side under an ad unit. You will also notice that anything resembling traditional navigation is completely missing. My initial reaction to this structure was that I didn’t like it for a lot of reasons and after spending more time with it that opinion hasn’t changed. The biggest reason is the way the content has been balanced and laid out makes it extremely difficult to browse and understand even with such a simple layout .  The placement and amount of advertising is what really throws everything off as it is given the best page real estate. It is compounded by the fact that if you look at the page on a 1024×768 monitor, which has a viewable area of 972 x 568, then the title bar, main story and unit take up about 80% of the total viewable page real estate. You are left with a tiny window filled with text only headlines that you instantly have to scroll down to explore anything more than the top 2 or 3 stories. I think that this tiny pseudo navigation area could be overcome if there faceted navigation that would let me sort the data into groups to cut down on the hunt and peck method of trying to find stories of interest.

I tried to use this new Gizmodo and other Gawker sites for a few days and ultimately gave up in favor of getting their stories through RSS feeds or mobile apps like FLUD. I then stumbled onto this posting called ‘This Is The New Gizmodo‘ that explains the new design and after reading the section called ‘How to use the new design’ my opinion of the new design dropped even further. The first paragraph of this section reads ‘It’s simple: You can scroll through posts one by one with the up and down arrow keys, or the j + k keys.’ This drove me over the edge.  I have designed a lot of innovative interfaces in my career and every one of them was a new expression of an existing user interaction convention so that people could experience something new but it was presented in an intuitive and even strangely familiar way. In this case those key combinations to control the stories were the only new functionality added to the site so I hunted all over their design and found that I could use those key combinations NO WHERE. This summed up my whole problem with this design.  Business and revenue goals were placed too highly over the end user experience and it threw everything out of whack.

I would be willing to bet a lot of money that this new content balance and structure that puts such high premium and placement on advertising over navigation was done to try to drive more ad revenue by creating a more prominent ad placement and the hunting behavior was accepted because it could drive page views which will also drive page views and this ad impressions. The fact that I also keep finding 300×600 and/or 640×360 ad units taking up half of the large story area might also have lead me to that insight as the number of size of the ads on the site quickly start to feel like overkill. This same type increased advertising placement and availability was also a part of the re-design but they were able to accomplish their goals without completely compromising the user experience like we see here. Gizmodo is trying to position it as the deign decision were done to help improve load times for the entire page but that is hard to believe as I sit here waiting for the video ad unit featured across the top of the page to load.

I was curious to see if everything my experience was telling me about this design was right so I kept on eye on on which tracks their visits and page views. Look at the graph above or the full report here and see if you can tell when the new design launched. The site goes from nearly 5 million visits a day to completely falling off a cliff and struggling to hit 500,000 a day. If these numbers were just contained to the page views then you could chalk it up to them changing to a new way of serving their content pages but seeing the visitors drop in parallel with the pages means there is a very real problem that bears out my feeling about their new design. Major changes in sites that have a loyal following can have major consequences in not handled correctly. You have to do this type of work with an understanding of the experience users are accustomed to and how you can evolve that experience without going from an evolution to a revolution.  This may even mean thinking about the it as a staged process where roll out new pieces of functionality over time to still get to your end goal but do it in a way that is less of a sudden and radical change.

You can already see Gawker trying to use content to over come their design problems as most of the day the main story area is no longer filled with a single story but rather a ‘Best Stories for Today’ article that tries to recapture a more traditional blog format of 5 to 10 story blurbs running vertically down the page.

For any major site re-design to be success the final result has to be a negotiated blend of brand, business and customer goals. You have to look at each project and determine how those three needs to be weighted to achieve the desired end result and no single goal can completely take over the process.  If it does then you get what we see with the new Gawker designs where the business goal dominates so completely that it gets in the way of the customer goals and creates this bad user experience. I think this also is yet another example of why user testing is so critical with major re-designs.  They may have done user testing but when I experience the final result it feel like they never took my experience into account and thus if they did any testing it was a failure. I don’t care if you lock yourself away in a professional testing facility for days or just get some friends together in your apartment, you have to take the time to take an un-biased look at your work and how it performs in the real world. You don’t have to take all the feedback at it’s exact face value and change the whole design just because one person doesn’t like something but rather took at the feedback in it’s entirety to see it through someone else’s eyes.  It can be a sobering experience but it is absolutely critical to delivering that negotiated blend of brand, business and customer goals.

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