Strange section titles

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 12, 2002

I've just posted a comment to Poynter's online-news list-serv about some news sites' strange section titles. Someone had asked whether online news staffs could benefit from attending usability conferences. My reply:

You bet your bippy online newspaper staffs can benefit from usability conferences. Steve Y. nailed it: Most newspaper sites' designs try to replicate a print product. And it's disgusting.

I can't tell you how many times I've happened upon a newspaper site for the first time and been mystified by its strange section titles. Take a look at some of these and see if you can guess what kind of content lurks behind them:

(I don't mean to pick on these sites in particular; they're just the first few I stumbled upon.)

"FYI"? Isn't *everything* on a newspaper site supposed to be FYI? "PageSix"? That's very relevant in a newspaper, but online, it's meaningless. I'm from Chicago, so I'm familiar with "Metromix" -- but who's to say an outsider will know what that is?

Etc, etc, etc.

Producers of these sites might make the argument that repeat users will eventually *learn* the meaning of these vague terms. But what's the percentage of Internet users who just happen upon your site, say via a search engine, at any given time? I recall hearing it was a relatively high number.

Anyway, yes, newspaper sites have a long way to go in terms of usability. I've only mentioned a single usability problem above, but there are way too many others.

Since posting, I've found a few more:

Thoughts? Seen any really wacky section titles? Post a comment.

Comments

Posted by David on July 15, 2002, at 4:22 p.m.:

I disagree with this. "Page Six" is a brand name; that's why it's online. If the New York Post called it "gossip" the area would lose a lot of its basic value; New Yorkers who love the real Page Six might have a harder time finding it online. Blanket dictums only get you so far when it comes to usability.

Posted by Sara on July 15, 2002, at 5:18 p.m.:

Until David's comment, I had no idea what "Page Six" was. The problem seems to be the focus audience. Readers of the print will know and identify with certain sections - and carry that to online. Global users, however, will be turned off and alienated by the insider talk. Before naming online sections, editors should ask "Who are we trying to reach?"

Posted by Adrian on July 15, 2002, at 5:25 p.m.:

Regarding "Page Six": With my newfound knowledge of that term's significance (thanks, David), it makes sense to take advantage of the brand and use "Page Six" as a link identifier. BUT, I still think some sort of explanatory subtitle would be helpful for gossip ignoramuses like me. Maybe "Page Six (gossip)." Or, if spacing is limited, the designer could use the link's TITLE attribute to give a short description.

I just noticed that the New York Post does indeed have a "Gossip" link, too, which makes things a bit more confusing.

Posted by Justin on July 16, 2002, at 1:23 a.m.:

Shoot. I was going to show off my recently acquired New York "expertise" and let you know about the significance of "Page Six," but David beat me to it. Just as a paper might have great "front-page" stories, the Post has dishy insider "Page-Six" gossip. I understand what y'all are saying about global usability concerns, but what would you think if the Post found that mostly New York users -- people who would have convenient access to hard copies of the Post and who would be familiar with Page Six -- were interested in reading the Page Six content? Would you then leave the link as it is so those readers could quickly find all the gossip they need? Or, would you still be too concerned about those occasional users from elsewhere who stumble upon the Post's site and could potentially be turned off by the colloquialism, if you will?

Separately, about Metromix: I get the feeling that "Metromix" is meant eventually to become nearly as recognizable as "Chicago Tribune." There's a weekly "Metromix" TV show, if I'm not mistaken, and I believe the site generates some of its own content. It also offers interactive features (Readers can submit reviews and what-not.). I don't see how it would survive, though, if the Trib did not hawk it in print ads or link to its arts-and-entertainment stories. When does a content provider decide a feature can stand on its own? How does a paper know that all of the specialty content from something like Metromix (or Page Six) wouldn't benefit users and the content provider itself if the special features remained on a main, easily recognizable, higher-traffic site?

Posted by Adrian on July 16, 2002, at 7:58 p.m.:

There's definitely something to be said for giving a site feature a brand name and promoting it to the point of public familiarity. That's almost another issue entirely, so I regret mentioning "Page Six" as an example of bad usability. Well, it's still bad, but it's not nearly as bad as some of the more, shall we say, cutesy ones. Great discussion.

Posted by AgentKen on July 18, 2002, at 5:36 p.m.:

In our case, Compass is a newspaper entertainment section -- branded -- and should be recognizable to our local readers.

But I agree that it doesn't translate well to online, especially since it's a once-a-week publication.

But since writers, editors, and readers would ask "Where's Compass?" if we removed or renamed it, the name has stuck.

We tried to do a PageOne feature for a while, with the idea that these features would be promoted on page one of the print edition. But since the page designers don't promote the web site, that plan fell through.

Posted by Adrian on July 19, 2002, at 10:52 a.m.:

Ken: That's frustrating. I feel your pain. I once had to name an online section "Outlook" because the newspaper wanted consistency between the print and Web editions. Sure enough, I started getting e-mails from out-of-state visitors who obviously didn't read the print edition and were wondering what the heck Outlook was.

Maybe a good solution would be to print an explanatory blurb on the main Compass page detailing exactly what kind of content you'll find there.

Posted by AgentKen on July 19, 2002, at 2:44 p.m.:

We actually have a content rail in that section that explains the type of content that we post there, but I find that no one reads it. Not even the author of this blog:

"Best of St. Augustine

Cast your ballot in our readers' poll of the BEST places, people, and activities, in town!

Compass

Your weekly go everywhere, do everything guide to living in St. Augustine."

etc.

In our (limited) defense, the Compass section is designed for local readers and (in theory) supports and enhances that local print product. For out of town visitors, we have a clearly labelled Visitor's Guide that has the type of content that out-of-area site visitors would want to see.

Which leads to the question: am I too close to the issue to see the problem? Web designers and administrators know the most intimate deails of their sites so thoroughly, that it all seems logical to us. I dunno about other sites, but we don't get the money to run focus groups or demographic testing on our designs, so we just have to use our best judgment.

Do others out there find yourselves explaining things via phone and email that you've already spelled out in text on your site. For example, we changed our Obituary format a few months ago, and people don't seem to read the note (or if they do, they don't understand it).

As for the name Compass, we're stuck with it. But I do know that, espcially among smaller newspapers , the print side drives 98% of all editorial and advertising content decisions.

One of the common threads to most of the discussions on this site -- and on many newspaper industry forums -- is the difficulty of translating from print to web in an industry that is built on tradition and habit. What works for one paper is immediately labelled a "best practice" and replicated throughout the industry.

I think that one reason why you see so much consistency (or copying, take your pick) among newspaper web sites is for the same reason that you see so much consistency among print editions.

Here's a test case for you. I'm on an NAA panel for Circulation/Internet Convergence Marketing. My two main tasks are to develop ethical guidlines for data mining/storage and to design a "best practices" circulation area for web sites.

In theory, this demo site will be a model that will be duplicated across a broad range of the industry (assuming we do our job correctly).

Is such design/content repetition (where the AJV circulation site ends up 90% similar to that of, say the Augusta Chronicle) a bad thing? I dunno.

Posted by Chris Heisel on July 23, 2002, at 10:25 a.m.:

Adrian, I feel your pain on Outlook (I wasn't the one who made you do that, was I?)

I don't understand why papers use weird titles for their sections - City/State/Nation would be fine - it tells me what I'm looking for.

At the Indianapolis Star on some days, (in the paper), the business section is called Indianapolis, Inc. but on other days it's just Business. Thankfully, we just call it Business on the site and mention on the site that there are daily themes (including, Indianapolis, Inc.) for the coverage...

Posted by Adrian on July 23, 2002, at 1:56 p.m.:

Chris: I think the statement "it tells me what I'm looking for" is very telling. Online, people are on a mission, looking for things. In a print newspaper, they're more likely to browse -- which is why section titles like "Indianapolis, Inc." are more acceptable in that setting, I think.

Posted by Adrian on July 23, 2002, at 2:12 p.m.:

Ken: Aha! Thanks for pointing out that Compass explanatory blurb. I think one reason people don't see it is because it's in that light blue sidebar (i.e., it's set off to the side with a different background color). If it were right below the main Compass logo and timestamp -- or, heck, even on the right, above the blue sidebar -- it'd be right out there for everyone to see. Right now it looks like a separate piece of content.

Great point about being too close to the issue to see the problem. At ajc.com, the same thing often happens. One example: We've got two versions of almost each newspaper story -- the Web version (with photos, polls, etc.) and what's called the "E-paper" version, which is only the plain text from the newspaper that day. There's an E-paper section, and there's the normal Web section, and lots of times users don't know the difference.

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