Confessions of a site designer: ‘We’d like to see more trust’

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(Digiday article)

When publishers lack a clear strategy, often it’s their designers who suffer most. Big publishers look to external design agencies to turn their often-muddled product visions into reality. But the back-and-forth between agencies and their clients is a difficult process, frequently marked by baffling client requests misplaced motivations and a general lack of understanding about what makes for a successful design. (Hint: It’s more than keeping up with the competition.)

In the latest installment in our confessions series, we talk to one designer about the many things wrong with how publishers think of their page designs and overall product strategy.

What’s the biggest challenge about designing websites for publishers?

For legacy print publishers, it’s the total ignorance of how different print and digital really are. The reader habits do not translate directly, and there’s a certain amount of ego and fear from people that have been working in the industry so long and don’t understand it. There are a lot of people who won’t listen to us when we say that their old methods just don’t work.

Like what?

We’ve had fights about bylines and how they’re not important for the most part. Not that you shouldn’t have them, but they’re not the most important part of the page. The same goes for navigation. A lot people want navigation bars because what they’re used to, but it’s not what people actually use. We use data to make the case why we want to go in a certain direction.

Publishers say they’re thinking mobile-first, but is that actually happening?

They’re coming to us with the knowledge that mobile is important and that there are things called “mobile first” and “responsive,” but they don’t really know what those things are. They don’t know what they need to know to have those conversations. And I don’t blame them. It’s become very clear that mobile is important, and when everyone starts using the same term, it sounds important, but the first question everyone should be asking themselves is why.

Do you have to deal with the tug of war between the editorial side and sales side?

Surprisingly, that’s not something that we have to deal with often. It came up a lot 10 years ago, but a lot of editorial teams are realizing that advertising is a necessary evil and they need to get a paycheck.

Is “can you make the logo bigger” actually a thing?

Yeah, that’s a thing, and we see it whether we’re working with a publisher that’s digital or one that’s print-first. Sometimes you win that fight, sometimes you lose it. But the stakes are higher now. We used to make the argument that people know what site they’re on because they came there directly. Now, most people are entering news sites from the side door, so they may not know what site they’re on a lot of the time. The question is whether the making a bigger logo is going to help there. The logo isn’t going to tell people what a publication is about.

What about copycatting? How often do publishers want features just because other sites have them?

The challenge in the content world is that people copy each other without knowing something is going to be successful or whether it’s right for their brands. It’s like the hamburger menu on a site like Time.com. I can’t imagine what those debates were like but it certainly seems like someone over there saw a bunch of sites do that and insisted it be implemented that way even though data says that people don’t respond well to the hamburger and prefer a button that actually says menu — and that’s just on mobile. Why would you have that on desktop when desktop actually gives you the geography to have navigation if that is something actually important to your product?

What else don’t publishers understand about the design process?

I don’t think publishers understand the amount of time it takes to do this right. There was a time when we thought content sites only needed to be four pages: home, section, article and search, but now you’re dealing with 75-100 wireframes because there are so many different states of screens, mobile, tablet versions and types of articles, so a lot more has to go into it. People don’t understand that this is a serious undertaking thanks not going to take more than three weeks. Even we misjudge how big a project is sometimes.

What’s something you’d like to see more of?

I would like to see more trust. Publishers have to understand that they’re experts on their brand but we’re the experts at what we do.

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