Sunday, September 23, 2007

Rating The Latest Philly Inquirer Redesign

You readers know how dear I hold the Philadelphia Inquirer to my heart, having constructively criticized the paper's online endeavors before on this very blog.

Well this week, my prayers have been answered (including, finally, a blowout win by Mr. Donovan McNabb and his Eagles. But I digress.): The Inquirer has given its wing of the estate a facelift.

But is it a success?

Well, I'd say that Brian Tierney and Co. are clearly concerned about their digital face, which is arguably more important than their printed one. But as good as some of the changes are -- and some of them certainly convey the right intention -- the overall result leaves something to be desired.

According to the site, "we added toolbars, flash viewers, more video and multimedia,most viewed, most emailed, and top story boxes" among others. All of this makes sense -- in terms of navigation, it's much easier to read the pulse of the day's news as well as what the rest of the city is reading (not to mention much more opportunity for the business desk to reap data from its readers).

Visually, the masthead is placed in much more prominence, with a smaller logo above it. However, a major navigation problem -- since the new layout preserves the layout, clicking "Home," "News," "Sports," "Living" and other tabs puts you right back into the'd site, and not the "Inquirer" sections. Sure, the content is all the Inquirer's -- no use to double-report, naturally -- but the Inquirer masthead is lost into oblivion on all of the more breaking/online exclusive stories.

So how exactly is the Inquirer supposed to show that it's actually the one responsible for providing you, the reader, with content? The little "For the Inquirer" byline on each article in 50% grayscale?

To boot, mousing over the "Inquirer" tab brings up all the subsections of the actual paper, which are effectively mirrors of the tabs. Not only do they look redundant, but they're actually out-of-date, too. As it turns out, the content under the "Inquirer" tab is what ran in that day's paper -- but there's nothing that would tell you that except the outdated timestamp. So if I wanted to find up-to-date coverage on the aforementioned Eagles-Redskins game, I'd have to use's Sports tab, and not the Inquirer's own Sports tab -- even though the content is coming from the same source.

As for the front page, things are a little better. Some nice changes include including breaking news and a better front-page layout, with larger images and more selection of stories -- it now looks like the Inquirer publishes more than three stories a day. If you scroll to the bottom, there's a nice tabbed and featured-story layout, but more redundancy takes up valuable space. Why the doubled-up listings? And what's the tabbed box below the fold for?

One worry about the whole thing: I hear nearly every day that news studies show that a website loses 50 percent of its readers every "scroll" they must perform. On my high-resolution, small-font screen, it took me five scrolls to get to the bottom. Sp let me ask this: How many readers do you expect, honestly, at 800 by 600 pixels resolution, to get down to the pretty section-by-section breakdown at the bottom?

As you can see, there are some major unanswered problems in the Inquirer's redesign. For one, the front page gives up too much top and right-hand space to advertisements and doesn't distribute them better (and I'm looking at this in 1280 x 800 resolution, too, so "above the fold" is a lot of screen). Second, there's a major fight for attention: While the masthead no longer dominates, it now fights for the reader's eyes with the Inquirer's venerable masthead -- even when the content is all Inquirer. As a reader, that means I don't know where to go for the news I want -- and also gives me far too many redundant options to get lost in. Once I'm lost, I can't find how to get back because the Inquirer masthead has disappeared.

So please, Brian Tierney, listen up: You and the boys are doing a great job (well, except for that whole headquarters mixup), but you're only halfway there. Keep pushing -- and call me.

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