Newspapers’ User Experience Failure

For quite a while now, newspapers have been fighting upstream against other news outlets, blogs, and content sources in a battle for readership. Hell, even things like Twitter can be better and faster for getting eyeballs on an issue than mainstream sites. They’ve had many run of the mill issues, like simply lacking aesthetically pleasing designs with good information architecture that invite users in. But then there have been more specific problems like paywalls, popover ads, and interstitials which have been subject of much derision (and savvy users have been capable of working around them since nearly day one).

The latest trend that we need to put a stop to is the one seen here.

Lede, ad, survey, no story

Lede, ad, survey, no story

This is from a local newpaper’s website on an article I wanted to read today (err… yesterday, or, a few days ago, I guess it all depends on when you’re reading this, huh?). I read the article, because I know how to view the source of the webpage (knowing that the ad and survey are just JS manipulations of the page DOM after the fact). I probably shouldn’t have wasted the effort, but I did want to see what the content was, and I definitely didn’t want to reward this bad user experience decision. I’ve criticized this passingly on Twitter when I’ve seen it before, but the fact that it’s an experience choice that’s been hanging around bothers me enough to go a bit more long-form now.

Right off the bat when visiting the link to the news article, what you get in the “content area” is:

  • a one-line lede
  • an ad
  • a Google Survey

Dear Newspapers, it’s time for a little something…


You (the people running newspaper websites and making these decisions) need to understand that having the interruption be so immediate and in your face makes the page look like it’s not even actually an article – as if the user landed in the wrong place. The user came here to read an article, instead, they get no article, and you’re counting on them to stop long enough to read down the page and understand that they have to answer the survey question to see the content they came for. Let’s just be clear on something here, because we all know it to be true, and that’s the fact that people suck at reading and following instructions. This is triple true when they are instructions for something they didn’t expect in the first place. But don’t believe me, go check your bounce rate from social media referrals. I have a nice, crisp $10 bill that says the number is REALLY high. That’s value you’ve made the choice to flush down the toilet.

Look, I understand you’re trying to find ways to get revenue, and create a business model around your content so that you stay viable. I know advertising and surveys help prop that up. But this is about on par with me needing to know the secret passphrase to get on a car lot to look at new cars to buy (okay, this metaphor sucks, but you get the idea I’m going for). You’re telling me you’d rather send me away to an advertiser’s site, or force me into engaging with something I didn’t come to your site to engage with than to have me accomplish the goal that I came to your site to do. And the goal is one of the simplest, most basic goals of web design: read content. You are making choices to actively defeat yourself and your business model by preventing users from completing their goal.

Newspapers have a lot of challenges in the digital era, many of which are their own making. Some are also technological as groups of papers are bought out and crowbarred into terrible, out of date content management systems that make them all look the same. Some are logistical, where small-town papers simply can’t staff a web team the way a place like CNN or Fox can. But things like this are active choices that can be undone, and should be undone. Stopping a user from completing their goal is the first thing you learn to avoid in User Experience Design 101. If, as a visitor, I know I’m going to be made to jump through hoops to read content, how do you think that will make me feel about your brand and my inclination to return for more later? Let me answer it, it makes me hate your site and I won’t come back. At best, I’ll circumvent your efforts, defeating the purpose you were going for to begin with.

I’ve begun to actively avoid sites that do this now, even if they have content I want to read. Usually I can Google the title and find the story somewhere else where I won’t be hassled. Don’t reward them. Don’t encourage bad UXD by giving in. When you see this behavior in the wild, tweet their accounts or post on their Facebook pages that it’s not okay to build websites that way, because these brands and media groups need to realize they are only hurting themselves by perpetuating this sort of bad behavior. People tend to put up with more than they should, and as silly as this issue is, we as web developers should always fight for good UXD, even if the users we’re defending are users of websites we immediately control.