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The Independent redesign & relaunch: ouch

This week, in a bid to grow its international audience, The Independent launched a newly redeveloped website and tablet app. The new website began with some teething difficulties, which the editor was forced to apologise for. Matt Lindop, head of user experience at London digital marketing and technology company Fortune Cookie takes a look at the site and offers his initial impressions.

In 1986 The Independent shook up the UK newspaper market with a fresh approach to journalism, to editorial, and to design. With its challenge of 'It is, are you?' I remember it feeling genuinely revolutionary.

So it’s sad for me to see a paper I admire and want to see succeed make such a mess of their redesign and relaunch.

It’s early days (it’s only been live for 24 hours) but there seem to be two things worth looking at: the design itself, but first the process of launching the new site.

Beyond teething

It’s clear the site just wasn’t ready for launch. At the time of writing the paper’s Editor Martin King has issued a ‘profuse apology’, acknowledging that they’ve hit ‘more than just teething problems’. These problems range from service unavailable messages, to no 404 page, and bugs that manage to crash the normally uncrashable Chrome. This poor attention to QA doesn’t just damage user’s confidence in the site - it contaminates the whole brand.

Putting these launch nightmares to one side, what about the redesign itself? The old site it replaces was truly horrible: a mess of tiny fonts, beige (really) and boxes upon boxes of content. So in some ways the new design is an improvement. The masthead basks in plenty of white space (the beige has gone). There are some nice typographical devices. The information architecture is simpler (though that wouldn’t have been difficult).

But that’s where the good news ends. The user experience itself (even putting the launch problems to one side) is a real disappointment.

Content balance

Newspaper sites should be about content, yet content seems to have taken a back seat to advertising and (supposedly) related content. The design of the article page itself seems to have been designed to be deliberately hard to scan. We estimate only about 8% of the entire page is given over to the primary content.

Navigation

The opportunity to redesign doesn’t come round often, and we know that gestural devices are going to become the norm soon. So it seems odd to launch a site with a primary navigation that relies on drop-downs - next to unusable for tablet and smartphone users.

Advertising

Newspapers need to work out how to make websites pay for themselves, and it’s clear that The Indy design team have been asked to incorporate as much display and AdWords advertising as possible. Yet The Guardian has integrated the same number of display ad slots much more seamlessly into the interface. And at points today it has looked as though the site is meant to carry wrap-around advertising (a leaderboard plus a super sky on either side that follow you down as you scroll). Assuming this is deliberate (and not just a product of the botched launch) it’s a horrible experience for the user - and I can’t imagine does advertisers much of a favour either.

Technical

It doesn’t seem to get any better if you look under the hood. The home page weighs in at 3MB. JavaScript and CSS haven’t been compressed. Header structures are all over the place. And, to really wind up my colleague Ted, HTML class names reference the colour they currently control, rather than their semantic function.

It’s not too late

Some of these problems are pretty quick fixes, and all are solvable in time. If I were Mr Lebedev, I’d be wanting my digital team to focus first on QA and general site performance - get it live, get it working. I’d also keep a close eye on CTRs from display and AdWords and fix things if it’s not good news. And if bounce rates increase on article pages, the team will also have a good indication that core content isn’t getting enough prominence. Finally, over time it would be great to optimise the primary navigation for different devices, and to consider how the design will need to change over time to optimise for gestures.

The Independent has been a distinctive, disruptive force in British newspapers for 25 years. I for one hope they are able to turn this mess around and again start to push the boundaries of design and journalism online.

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