It is sad to see a website change in such a negative way that it becomes an unpleasant experience to visit it. When this happens to a website that was one of the best in its class, it is even more tragic. Unfortunately, exactly that has happened to my favourite news site:-
This is not only my personal opinion. If you go to
“Welcome to the new Guardian website”
the comment labelled “Guardian Pick” says most of it in a nutshell:-
“As a Grauniad reader for over 40 years and a daily website user/consumer, I agree with many of the negative comments, most of which are much better articulated than I could manage. The new design generally feels awkward, unenticing, and hard to navigate – no longer a newspaper with a front page, headlines, and sections any more. I guess that’s the point, but I’m sad to see it go and will undoubtedly spend a lot less time on it after these awful changes. That said, the first thing I was able to find was the crossword!”
And flicking through the 69 pages of comments which accumulated before commenting was turned off, the above comment is accurate, but very mildly stated compared to some.
Where did it all go wrong?
I have tried to pinpoint some relevant factors, as I see them, and will offer them as clues. But first, I need to clarify one point:-
In my experience, engineers want a full set of documentation for anything they are working on in the smallest format possible. The back of a cigarette packet would be good, the back of a postage stamp would be even better!
How is this relevant to a website?
Well, if we think about the home page, and its function, we realise that it is nothing other than a list of contents. It may look a bit fancy to make it attractive, but its function is to convey in the quickest method possible what is available on the rest of the site.
If we couple that with the requirement for minimum area, we end up with a single page, with everything listed on it. Ok, it might well be a long page that you have to scroll down, but the main thing is there is no need to click on anything, or fiddle around. Apart from the scrolling, it is not interactive – it doesn’t need to be. After all, we are not playing a computer game; we are reading a page of text, for goodness sake, interspersed with pictures!
The old Guardian site was pretty well organised. There were three main columns. I would sweep down the page scanning the first column on the left, looking for topics of interest. If I found something, I would load that in a new tab in the browser, and continue on down. When I reached the bottom of the page, I would scroll upward, checking the centre column for items of interest. The third column I could mostly ignore, as I have no interest in sport, etc.
Often I didn’t need to scroll right down the page. The practice of moving older items further down from the top meant that as soon as I had reached an item that I had already seen I could scroll back up again in the next column.
The whole process was quite quick, unless there was a lot of interesting material at one time. But even so, once I had loaded up my various tabs, I could disconnect from the site altogether, and leave it free for someone else.
So right from the start there is a mismatch:- The Guardian wants me to spend longer on their site, and I want to spend as little time there as possible.
While I appreciate that the requirement to present content to devices of differing size and capability may present some problems, they are by no means insurmountable, as we can see by this blog. The theme is designed to be read equally well on a desktop computer, a tablet, or a mobile phone. I don’t have to take any notice of who is using what at all. I just write the content and post it.
The same should be true of the Guardian website, but unfortunately, with the new version, it is not.
The reason for this is that the new site is slanted in favour of the mobile phone, with its very small display area. Containers may be a perfectly good way of dealing with presentation here, but they are certainly not needed for a desktop display, as we already know that a single page presentation offers the best experience. I have no experience of using a tablet as yet, and so will have to reserve judgement on that.
So we see that the limitations of the mobile phone have dictated the format of the whole site, which means that the advantages of having a desktop computer have been thrown away.
While I appreciate the desire to move everything onto a single code base, this does not mean that the data so stored cannot be presented differently for different types of device. The data just needs to be filtered three different ways:- mobile, tablet and desktop.
Much is made of the new faster download time, which might mean that the data is in your computer a few seconds earlier. It does not mean, however, that you will find what you are looking for quicker – you won’t. The difficulty of finding things with the new layout far outweighs the saving in download time.
Note also that although you can’t see everything that has been downloaded on a single page, as before, the data has already been downloaded – even for the sections that you may have switched off because you have no interest in them. This means that you are consuming more bandwidth than necessary, which may involve a cost penalty.
I could continue to pick out individual aspects that cause irritation, but instead I will just state that while a responsive site may be perfect for a mobile, or even a tablet, it is of no value whatsoever on a desktop computer, where instead of helping it can only hinder.
I sincerely hope that the Guardian will realise that there is an easy fix for desktop computer users –
GO BACK TO THE OLD SITE FORMAT!