NYTimes.com gets a Major Facelift

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NYTimes.com has undergone its first redesign in five years, and it's a huge step forward over the old site, which was long past its prime. I do wonder if they have gone far enough, however.

The big news is it feels like a newspaper. (It also feels more like a blog, but more on that in a moment.) The columns look much more print-like, and the page almost literally has “folds”. On my 15” Powerbook screen, which has a fairly average 854 pixel height, you can scroll down the front page and there are clear breaks at 1/3 intervals that are sized for that height of screen. Smart.

The visual weighting of the elements is much, much cleaner than the old design, which was cramped and cluttered, with a color scheme that was old-hat looking the day it appeared 5 years ago. The new colors are much more sophisticated and subdued. The layout now stays centered on the screen, unlike the old one which stayed flush left (check out a random sample from archive.org). However, this is not a truly gooey layout as the columns do not resize. Given the complexity of the page layout, this is understandable. Pictures overall are larger, and don’t look like postage stamps any more.

nytimes2.gifThe flow of scanning the major articles on the front page is now better, and they are more logically placed and distinct from the second tier articles. Search is now more prominently displayed at the top in a stand-alone bar, though visually it looks a little funny underneath the “The New York Times” title centered on the page. (the nice white space around the header on the picture above is courtesy of Camino’s automatic ad blocking - at left you can see it as it appears on Safari - pooh!). In the bottom third, however, my eyes just glaze over at the number of links - this makes even Yahoo’s old layouts look simple! The small type is a necessity to get that much information on their, I suppose, but some stronger visual structure needs to be applied to help guide one’s eyes.

Ironically, the new design looks more like a blog, right down to the use of Georgia for the headlines, which is rapidly becoming a cliche (guilty as charged - what can I say, it's about the nicest standard font there is for this type of thing...). The overall colors, line spacing and so on all have a blog-like feel, which also makes me wonder about the new design's longevity - do they really intend this to last another five years? Hopefully they've made its inner workings nimble enough that a CSS refresh will be "all" it takes.

It is also more like the International Herald Tribune’s site (the NY Times has a relationship with IHT, I don’t know if it fully owns it or not but it certainly has some hand in its production and feeds it articles, usually on a 1-day delay basis. Perhaps someone can elucidate.) Still, for pure readability of articles I give the IHT a nod, it has one of the slickest ways of dynamically resizing and reflowing columns, and allowing you to easily click through articles. Compare how roughly the same article appears on IHT.com to NYTimes.com. (The IHT.com version does lack pictures though, a significant downside of its scheme.)  IHT.com also pioneered a clever drag/drop bookmarking scheme that the NY Times itself is perhaps adopting in some manner for MyTimes.com. We’ll have to see how that plays out once MyTimes comes online (you can become a "charter member" now, which maybe indicates it will be a fee-based service).

The newspaper describes MyTimes as a place to “organize your favorite Web sources of information — from NYTimes.com and elsewhere — and view them at a glance.” This puts them into competition with del.icio.us and things such as My Yahoo.

nytimes3.gifThe Times still feels like it’s playing catch-up on reader participation, however, despite the tabs for Most Popular, Most Emailed and Most Blogged. Even IHT.com has a "Save to Del.icio.us" link on all its article pages. Maybe I’m just being cranky, but it has a walled-garden atmosphere to it, which is not where the web is going. With the new features they have just about achieved parity, but if they are not going to redesign again for another five years then there will need to be some serious re-architecting in the mean time.

Multimedia content is more prominent (and thankfully based on Flash, so doesn't cause platform incompatibilities as can come up at CNN.com, for example). However, these look and act very 2003. Compare them to Flickr's slideshows or YouTube's visual polish, and they come off as primitive and lacking in interactivity. 

I love the “Today’s Paper” tab at the top of the page, what a simple and great idea. I’ve lapsed on my physical Times subscription, so this is a great first step to get a list of what I’m missing...

The Times Topics are also a logical step (I don't recall if they were in the previous design, if so they were buried, now they have a tab to themselves at the top of the main page). Presumably these are getting aggregated through a tagging mechanism, so why not open this up for readers to use themselves? Similar to Google's News Alerts, but it builds the page for you instead of drip-dripping you with articles on a daily basis. You can see the whole list of topics here, which I have to admit is pretty impressive, everything from Outdoor Advertising to Affirmitive Action.

A couple of interface issues I noticed: The Guided Tour pop-up window offers links to see more about the section you've just been guided through, however, the links load directly in the pop-up. Unfortunately this window is not equipped with browser controls (they can be manually turned on, but how many people know they can do that?). It should load the section in the window behind, instead.

Second, to my eyes they need to tweak the colors of links in line with body text - the blue links are a bit to hard too distinguish against the dark gray text. Look at the Editor's Note for example.

Overall though, at first blush this looks like a terrific update and I look forward to seeing what they roll out over the next few months. 

As an interesting comparison, for a  great discussion about another major newspaper redesign (of the print edition of the English Guardian), check out Dan Hill’s excellent City of Sound blog.