A front page dilemma
The article is all about a front page. It is meant to give you some perspective on how Aftenposten news organization approaches the subject and show you a more general picture. In the end, you will get a sneak peek into the CHINOOK – our answer to the front page challenge.
In my previous post I took you through the history of printed press. I tried to explain how the Internet disrupted the long-established business models and how the news organizations have been trying to answer to the changes around them.
But before I start, I want you to visit the website of the newspaper we work for: Aftenposten. It is the largest printed newspaper in Norway (by circulation). You can find more information about Aftenposten here and on Wikipedia.
Front page – how we judge a newspaper by its cover
I don’t need to explain how important is the front page of each website. It is the first thing the user sees. It is, in its essence, like a cover of a book. We all know a phrase: “Don’t judge a book by the cover”, anyway, people do it all the time.
Let’s leave the news industry for a moment to get a bit broader perspective on the subject. Since the front page is the first thing the user is going to see, everyone who owns a website has answered the inevitable question: what to put there? What kind of information would I like to present to my users first? Should it be the logo, listing of my best products, the location of my office, etc.? Should I try to put as many pieces of information as possible, or rather try to be minimalistic and use the front page as a dispatcher to dedicated sections? In other words: what kind of content should be presented on the front page.
The tricky part is that you can not answer this question without asking yourself: who will visit your page. New clients? Unsatisfied business partners? People trying to find traffic information? Clients looking for opening hours of your shop? It is fair to say that the answer is specific to your business and, same as in any other business, you need to know your users/clients.
If you run a local shop, your website is meant to be a simple business card on the internet, it is pretty much all you need to know.
If, on the other hand, your front page has thousands of visits each hour, this means you need to spend more time and answer some further questions.
You already know your “target group”. But the more visitors you have, the more diverse they are . That will inevitably lead to the situation when you must decide what subgroup is more important to you. Imagine you are responsible for the website of a big university. This is a good example of the problem. You do know your target group – students and people who would like to study there. It is easy to notice that you have two subgroups. Each will visit your website and look for different information. The first group – students will try to find results of exams, list of faculties, schedule for classes, etc. While the second group expects to get a contact information, map of campus, recruiting process, etc. You need to define a user profile and try to meet their expectations. Sometimes it means compromises. In other situations you need to choose who is more important.
But what if your business is run on the internet? Your website will be something more than just a convenient place to find all necessary details. So the next question would be: what is the business role of the front page? Is it to attract new clients? Maybe to keep users engaged? There are whole books explaining this topic. It is a big oversimplification but we can narrow this part to two roles:
- Sale: front page works as a distribution channel – e.g. e-commerce
- Drive traffic to website to make most $ from advertisers
Mobile vs Desktop.
This is another angle from which you need to look at the front page. If you are an enthusiast of progressive enhancement, you will rather start with the mobile-first approach and add more information while the screen size grows through tablet to desktop. But this dilemma is not only about the size of the screen and the question how to squeeze all content to fit small devices. With a smartphone in their hand, the user can expect different information than from the desktop version of your website. When at the bus stop, waiting for the transport, I would expect a website to get my location and provide with the list of the buses with their departure time. If I was visiting the same site on my desktop, sitting at home, I would rather like to see a route planner on the front page. I hope you get my point.
The front page is also a good place where you can highlight how you differ from your competition. It gives you the opportunity to define your brand. To build a strong brand on the internet you need to focus on design and cutting edge performance of your website.
Getting back to the news industry. The front page of a news site is where all these requirements meet together. Frankly speaking, it is hard to find any other business branch where the value of the front page would be higher. Let me just run through all the factors I highlighted earlier:
Users / clients.
In Aftenposten it is basically the population of the whole country. Everyone interested in news, no matter what age, is the target group of our newspaper.
Since the target group is very broad, the big challenge is to categorize and segment our readers. There are different ways to segment users, but let me focus on one. The frequency of visits. On one side of scale, we have frequent users, visiting our site every hour. People coming to us once or twice a week are on the other side.
Our front page plays an important role in several areas. The most important role, with no doubts, is to keep people informed. This is the place where important stories have their debut. Every minute of every hour, 7 days a week, our editorial staff makes countless decisions. Journalists create tens of stories each day. Not all can make it’s way to the front page. The editorial staff needs to find the balance between:
- breaking news
- what’s going on right now – latest news
- long read articles – stories explaining how things work, e.g. Election 2016 in the USA
- promotion of content from niche sections
- local news
This list can go on and on.
The front page is important for other parts of our business as well. Every news organization tries to diversify revenue streams. Aftenposten is no exception. What means we show ads on our websites. We also promote premium content created by our journalists.
Mobile vs Desktop.
In Aftenposten we have separate versions depending on the device. While the mobile is a fairly simple list of articles, the desktop is a rather complex site. The desktop version is manually created in DrFront. It is a powerful tool that lets the editors modify font size of texts, add custom images to articles and arrange articles in many different ways.
As I mentioned before, design is one of the things that lets you differentiate yourself from your competition. Design preferences are specific to culture, country and historical “look & feel” of your site. To see how it works simply look at Aftenposten, Svenska Dagbladet, Verdens Gang, The New York Times
Needless to say, faster is better, especially on mobile. It means extensive caching, using lazy loading for images, any sort of performance optimization like minification of code, usage of CDNs, etc.
The front page challenges of Aftenposten
Since you got so far in the article, you may start to wonder: Why am I explaining all of this to you?
And the answer is: I want you to understand the importance of the front page. How complex is this subject? And last but not least, I want you to know how things have been done in Aftenposten so far.
Some of you might catch inconsistency in my description. In one place I stress how important it is to know your users. I also stress the need of categorizing them in segments to deliver the content they expect to get. And yet, a few paragraphs later I write that our front page is manually created. And if some of you assumed that there is only one version of the front page, in terms of content – you were right.
That finally gets us to the point where I can explain what was the challenge we had to face.
How to tame automation and personalization was, among many, one of the most important problems of Aftenposten. A simple list-like column was not good enough anymore. We wanted to seamlessly embed personalized content on our front page, and at the same time:
- keep what is essential for each publication – identity grasped in UX and UI (design)
- keep established paths of user behavior
- measure the impact of new features
And to achieve that we needed to come up with much, much more than just a simple list.
Technology to the rescue
This is where CHINOOK steps in.
CHINOOK is a piece of a clever software, a library, a layout-ing engine, that can take any set of articles and stack them together, so the final outcome looks like today’s Aftenposten’s front page.
Unlike drFront, our solution doesn’t require any manual work or attention from the journalists. Our library allows delivering partly personalized front page without any loss in the look & feel specific for Aftenposten.
In the next posts I will explain in details what CHINOOK does and how it works.