When Nola.com unveiled a new web design in May, New Orleanians were underwhelmed. The new site, which emulated an earlier rendition at Mlive.com, Advance Internet’s main Michigan online presence, touted a bold gold header, large type, and a single central rolling “river” of content, updated continuously and chronologically throughout the day.
Within days, negative public reaction to the color scheme resulted in a switch to a more soothing earth-toned palette for both websites.
Now sources tell me that more changes are on the way. The graphics director at The Times-Picayune, I am told, is tasked with making Nola.com a more user-friendly destination. She will reportedly work with Nola.com technical directors to revamp the site.
That’s good news for TP readers who are lamenting the loss of the daily paper, and who have been skeptical about finding the stories, features and writers they follow on the website.
If the New Orleans website does develop a unique look, it will be a first for Advance Internet, whose sites so far have shared one of two main designs. The “old” format is retained by Cleveland.com, NJ.com, PennLive.com, SILive.com, and Syracuse.com, while the newer format, that adopted by Nola.com in May, debuted at Mlive.com in February and has since been launched at Al.com and OregonLive.com.
Advance is a major player in the digital world, with its 10 regional websites pulling content from three-dozen papers. For its first major Internet retooling, the company turned to a design company in San Francisco.
The Mlive.com redesign is the work of California-based Mule Design, a consortium of 10 designers, developers and strategists (and an office dog, Rupert) that cites an A list of clients, including ProPublica, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo!
A number of the firm’s projects are detailed in online case studies at its own website – including the process behind Mlive. Posted in February, the case study explains, in part:
“We collaborated with the Mlive.com team to completely reimagine what a local news experience could be — exciting, responsive, and community-oriented. We interviewed current Mlive.com users throughout the state to find out what mattered most to them. And we explored all the options for what was technologically feasible with available time and resources.”
The resulting look, continues its creator, is “bright and bold,” with a navigation system designed to cut clutter and offer clear navigational paths, a “nimble, app-like experience that enables exploration, and lets content come to the fore.”
Mlive readers (ones obviously not in those focus groups) didn’t agree – especially with “nimble” or “clear navigational paths.” Of the 37 comments on the case study, 35 are critical. Many complaints revolved around big headers, too few stories displayed on the screen, and a garish look. Adjectives describing the site included “jarring,” “brutal” and “disappointing.”
A day after the case study was posted, Mule’s co-founder and the site’s creator, Mike Monteiro, weighed in: “I led the design of the new MLive.com home page,” he wrote.” We took a lot of factors and input into account, and I stand behind all of the decisions we made. This was intended to be a radical redesign, and inevitably this much change all at once provokes a strong reaction.
“As with any significant website launch, there will be adjustments and tweaks based on how the new design is performing over time. We look forward to those continued improvements.”
Whatever tweaks and improvements followed, they didn’t resonate with consumers when the design moved to Nola.com a few months later.
“An even uglier, more cadmium-yellow version of this visual abortion has been inflicted on users of NOLA.com,” lamented one. “And this time there’s none of the ‘oh we did market research with locals’ horse***t to hide behind.”
At arguably the site’s lowest point, it made the title list at webpagesthatsuck.com.
Now the news that the New Orleans site may get a hometown makeover sparks hope for readers whose biggest complaint has always been that Nola.com is hard to navigate and stories hard to find. (OK, load time is an issue, too.)
We’ve all been chastising Advance for treating America’s most unorthodox city in a most orthodox way, with a one-size-fits-all mentality that lumps us in with Detroit, Cleveland and Newark.
The prospect of a site that takes into consideration local trends and tastes, politics and lifestyles – not to mention headlines that reflect the kind of credible journalism we have come to expect from The Times-Picayune – would make the three-day-week newspaper pill a lot less bitter to swallow.
In Michigan, newspaper readers were queried about what they wanted. In New Orleans, it would be nice to be asked the same.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.