editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Website changes + no notice = frustrated readers

December 26th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Everyone loves a surprise, right?

When it comes to Hanukkah, Christmas for even birthday gifts, surprises are a big hit. But in terms of your website, surprises don’t really work.

Having been part of a number of redesigns, I can tell you that out of all the complaints that will typically come in, number one with a bullet will be “Why didn’t you tell me this was coming?” (Of course followed quickly by “What did you do to my website?” “What were you thinking?” and “I can’t find anything!“) Despite that, many newspapers still surprise their readers with everything from navigational changes to complete site redesigns.

What only serves to make a bad situation worse is the lack of follow through once the change is revealed — no house ads or even a note from the editor to explain what changed and why. So we’ve taken a bad initial decision and made it worse by failing to acknowledge it — sounds just like a newspaper, right?

Not everyone makes these mistakes, there are some best practices out there that are worth noting.

At sfgate.com the, the Redesign Team uses blog posts to discuss and introduce new designs and functionality. For example, last month they introduced a new business section and wrote a post that incorporated a screenshot and provided a way for people to offer feedback. They wrote:

We’ve given the SFGate Business and Technology pages a brighter design, increased the size of headlines and simplified the navigation, which is now at the top of the page. We’re also increasing the frequency of updates during the business day.

We’ve also made it easier to find related content, such as Real Estate, Small Business, our five business columns, and the Technology and Bay Area Biz blogs.

The marketing team at the Ledger.com designed a house ad to go along with their home page redesign. They used a screenshot of the front page to explain to readers all the new and/or changed functionality. Stan Ostashen, The Ledger’s marketing manager wrote:

“TheLedger.com has been redesigned to put focus on multimedia and interactive content not available in print editions of The Ledger. This handy reference guide will help you navigate through our redesigned home page. We hope you enjoy all our new features.”

In addition, the ad was included in a post on their “What’s new online” blog, allowing them to reach both their print and online readers.

Another approach is to create an FAQ that predicts some of the questions readers might have and can be added to as new questions arise. The Pocono Record relaunched their site a few months back and created an FAQ that explained the rationale behind their redesign and where everything could be found.

Even CNN worked hard to ensure that their 2.0 redesign was not a surprise. For weeks before their formal relaunch, they ran a mirror site offering a look at the redesign and new functionality. Visitors had a choice between using the new site and continuing to use the old site.

So what tips can we take away from these examples:

  • Let your visitors know that a change is coming.
  • Provide as much detail as you can. A screenshot will go a long way.
  • Don’t forget to use your print publication to inform readers of changes online.
  • Think about blogging about changes or improvements to your site.
  • Make it easy for people to provide feedback.

Those are my thoughts, but I’d like to hear from you, what are your thoughts on surprises and changes to your website? What tips do you have for other sites thinking of making changes or doing a redesign? And those of you visiting via the Newsdesigner.com, do you have any thoughts on this issue?

Tags: Best Practices · Industry · Innovation · Online · Ottaway

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jack lail // Dec 26, 2007 at 7:16 am

    A current example is Gannett’s Tennessean. They have been promoting a new site in the upper right hand corner of the current for a couple weeks it seems. The new site is at beta.tennessean.com.

  • 2 admin // Dec 26, 2007 at 9:06 am

    jack lail » Thanks, hadn’t seen that. I like the dual front approach, just wish more sites would take advantage of it, especially since there are commercial outlets that will do the mirroring for reasonable price.

  • 3 links for 2007-12-27 : William M. Hartnett // Dec 27, 2007 at 5:20 am

    [...] Website changes + lack of notice = frustrated readers – editor on the verge “When it comes to Hanukkah, Christmas for even birthday gifts, surprises are a big hit. But in terms of your website, surprises don’t really work.” (tags: web-design newspapers) [...]

  • 4 JohnofScribbleSheet // Dec 27, 2007 at 5:57 am

    User interaction and feedback is critical to the success of any site, sfgate does a great job.

  • 5 ScribbleSheet Blog // Dec 27, 2007 at 6:56 am

    [...] Yoni at Editor on the Verge takes a look sfgate and how they involve their community in the sites redesigns and directions. They post screenshots [...]

  • 6 Bob Welsh // Jan 30, 2008 at 7:58 am

    I like the new changes on the website and it was not so radical as to be difficult to follow. My only complaint is being a former Lakeland resident, its impossible to follow my old high school’s basketball team because you almost NEVER put in scores and I have never found a high school sports scoreboard on the sports page to look at. Some of us live 600-700 miles away and subscribing to the paper would make no sense but we like keeping up with the things that go on where we used to live.
    Bob Welsh
    KHS class of 77

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