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Redefine design? Forget about it. Design evolves and, especially where the online world is concerned, it’s been making huge strides for years. Design is no longer the act of “making it pretty.” With the rise of data-driven design, it’s now as much of a science as it is an art — those that have mastered the balance of the two are true experts in form, function and user experience.
We joined Slate Design Director, Vivian Selbo, and New York Magazine Director of Digital Design and User Experience, Steve Motzenbecker, for a session at Media Next in New York to see just how design has transformed their print and digital presence.
Roughly a year ago, Slate overhauled their site. It was one of the most notable redesigns of the recent past — touching nearly ever aspect of the site to accommodate the brand’s growth, mobile initiatives and user experience goals. It’s since brought relevant content, video and algorithm-driven recommendations to the forefront, cleaned up the users’ flow through the site and made sharing dangerously simple — all huge wins for an online publication churning out a ridiculous quantity of content.
“Design is the mechanism for delivering our voice,” said Vivian. The poignant phrase emphasized that the Slate redesign wasn’t for the sake of design, it was for the sake of function and was done with purpose. She explained that the site has many stakeholders and teams involved in its maintenance — design, editorial, business, engineering and, of course, the audience. To build a truly functional site, she said each must understand the needs and values of the other. They had to answer what, when, where and how the needs for each group could be accommodated in the design, then ensure their needs were satisfied.
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She continued that “every page is the homepage.” And that’s true. In an era of the web in which third-party search is how most people find the page they’re seeking, it’s beyond common for users to enter your site “sideways.” With that in mind, Vivian admitted that the majority of users experience the Slate article page before the homepage, if they get there at all.
That little piece of insight prompted the rise of the Fresca layout for Slate and many, many other content publishers throughout the web, including New York Magazine. Their unique challenge? A publication that began in and is still dominated by print now has to be translated to web. The unfortunate truth is that the dramatic, creative visuals and flexible stylings recognized by the readers of New York Magazine are much more easily constructed for their print version than they are in a templated CMS for display on a high-content-volume website. “Hacking has to happen,” Steve said. The Fresca style accommodates that “hacking.”
While it requires a greater time investment in most cases, it allows for a richer experience with the personality of the writer, brand or designer shining through. Both panelists emphasized that you must choose your moments to invest added effort in elements of your site. In the case of potentially highly engaging content — the investment can pay off. The more elaborate, interactive and visually stimulating designs created in their Fresca layouts helps to capture and reengage audiences as they enter on the sideways paths that bypass their homepages.
Vivian noted that Slate showed a clear correlation between sideways entries and mobile traffic. It’s a natural progression for users to check their phone, hit the link and view the site through their favorite social network with minimal effort.
Steve also offered four tips to ensure the added design effort is worth your while:
- Let your content lead. Don’t design just to design. Make sure that adjustments and exceptions are providing benefit to the user and to the site.
- Communicate. Talk with your audience. Talk with your team. Ensure that the direction is the right one.
- Do it. Avoid over planning. Investing too much time in a grand plan can lead to missing an opportunity entirely. Time is valuable.
- Evaluate and improve. Make note of the level of effort invested and the results — both long term and short term. Consider your measurements for success and whether or not the investment was worthwhile.
While the Fresca layouts are often excused from displaying ads, the traffic they drive through the site tends to forgive the lack of immediate monetization. It’s worth noting, still, that on pages where ads are present — they’re an intentional piece of the design. They’re placed with purpose and draw attention without being overwhelmingly distracting or providing excessive clutter.
Regardless of the design style, the goal is typically the same: engagement. Achieving relevance and driving engagement among your target audience is the true measurement of success in your design. As the panel put it: “measure engagement and the advertisers will follow.”
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