Designing for extreme readers…

03/23/2003

So a mainstream news site is often comprised of many hundreds – thousands – of individual news stories. These stories are mostly designed to fit into a pretty clear taxonomy which reflects “what the news site is for”. This taxonomy is normally pretty clearly defined and normally has a pretty wide top level (the items that deal with the news alone are divided up into anything from seven to twelve sections – world, business, science, politics etc). Articles may be faceted or sit under several headings (heterarchical organisation), but the taxonomies concerned are fairly clear (often inherited from org-charts derived from parallel print products – but never mind, eh?). This kind of taxonomy results in the need for left-hand navigation (it’s simply difficult to put large lists horizontally on a page). This kind of navigation, in turn, is well-suited to the kind of readers that a news site tends to get – people who have an ongoing relationship with the publication in question (ie. they knew of the site before they went there) and are therefore prepared to browse the site because they came to it as a specific first port of call for a kind of information or to answer a specific question.

Weblogs are very different beasts – particularly those weblogs which are based around single-entry archives. Firstly, they don’t tend to have clearly definable taxonomies. Some may – but they are the exception, and tend to be the more professionally oriented. So there’s no need for large navigational structures or organised heterarchies. Weblogs are also not first port of call sites when you’re trying to answer a question or get a specific kind of information. They are specifically designed to be feeding out information as and when the publisher wishes, and not in direct response to anything going on in the world outside. You cannot guarantee that Jason’s site – on any given day – will provide you with all the news you need to know about any subject. Nor is the site organised to make the finding of entries on a specific subject matter as simple as possible. This is not a flaw in Jason’s site – nor is it a flaw in weblogging in general. It’s simply the way the form is structured.

In fact, while news sites are a coherent whole into which individuals dip themselves, weblogs have two very different types of readers with two very different forms of interaction. Firstly, there are those with a long-term association or relationship with the person / site in question. Secondly, there are those who are directed to a specific internal page by a link from another weblog or via an unfortunate (or inspired) search request. These extremes are more radical than a news site. On a weblog, it’s entirely possible that someone might find themselves on a specific internal page without having the slightest idea of the context of a post whatsoever – or anything about the site in question. This will be still more true about a site that allows people to publish individual entries to individual pages – like Movable Type.

Essentially, while a substantial group of readers are treating your site as an ongoing narrative centred around the presence of a singular human author, many other people are seeing nothing more than an infinitesimal slice of your content. For all they care, your weblogging application might not be producing one coherent site at all – in fact to any individual member of this second audience, your weblog will consist of just one of dozens / hundreds / thousands of bespoke self-contained and only loosely connected one-page sites that all happen to share a design. One of them might see “What Tom Coates did at the pub last night”, one might see “Niels Bohr and the War in Iraq”, another “Extreme Readers and Weblogging”. This group further breaks down into two groups – the group that might be persuaded to hang around for longer and those who came for information and information alone.

Most weblogs are designed for the weblog-literate – who you might want to lure across the rest of the content on your site by supplying them with previous / next links or calendars ,or by illuminating your (probably fairly haphazard) taxonomies through displaying lists of categories. But the average member of the general public will understand the page that they find themselves upon only if you supply context – above and beyond that supplied by a standard news or article based website. They need to be able to assess your trustworthiness, they need to be able to estimate the value of your writing. They also need to be able to figure out precisely what kind of writing it is.

So here are a few recommendations to webloggers who wish to be comprehensible to these readers:

  • Place a small piece of explanatory text on your individual archives explaining the structure of your site.
  • Elucidate or link clearly to information about you – the author of said weblog – including any pertinent details that make you qualified to talk about what you’re talking about (if it is a personal site, then that’s qualification enough).
  • For this audience it’s important to recognise that you’re not necessarily going to want to promote your own personal ‘brand’, so leave your navigational links simple, clean and self-explanatory.