The first thing I notice is the banner ad up top. When I realize it’s a banner ad, I feel a bit duped. The page lacks much color,s o I think that’s why I gravitated towards the banner ad. The next thing I do is look at the top left of the screen, to see “Sign On San Diego.com.” Next, I’m drawn to the large picture on the page. Underneath this, I see the heading “Heating up at Coachella.” I’m then drawn to the stories next to the featured story. It appears this website uses a grid, and that’s a good thing because otherwise it would be very difficult to find anything.
Scrolling down the page, again, I notice the advertising outright. There’s a lot of it, to be sure. I read the heading “Multimedia” and then scan for other headers: Business & Sports, Union-Tribune Columnists & Weblogs, and Features & Entertainment. None of these particularly appeal to me, and here’s why: each section uses the same format to present it’s content. This is probably not the fault of the designers, though—they have a huge variety of stories and information to present so a simple format is best. Still, as someone who is used to the flashy and multi-media rich interfaces of modern websites, my eyes become tired and my “regular” way of browsing sites doesn’t work.
The sitemap at the bottom helps me get a bird’s eye view of the site, and I can see there’s a whole lot to cover. The hierarchy that’s presented is comforting because it gives me the (potentially false) impression that I can never go more than two “levels” deep into the content hierarchy. Theoretically, it should be difficult to become lost.
I decide to dive in and see what a story looks like. I scroll to the top of the page and click on “Heating up at Coachella.” What I get surprises me. The page I’m presented with looks notably different from the page I came from. The navigation bares little resemblance to the home page of signonsandiego.com. Unfortunately, there are no visual cues to tell me where I am on the website.
I appreciate that this site has a wide variety of information regarding the Coachella music festival, though. It appears I can look at the history of the festival, photos from past years, as well as visit a blog regarding the festival. Unfortunately, these pages offer no contextual navigation, forcing me to self-orient.
Home or Entertainment Guide?
I decide to take a step back and start again from the front page. Unfortunately, this again points out the need for clear navigation. After clicking on “Home” at the top left of the site, I’m presented with a page that looks nothing like the page I came from.
Apparently, going home from the Coachella story has landed me inside of the “Entertainment Guide.” This breaks a convention I formed inside of my head. Because I came to the Coachella page from the home page of the site, I find it completely logical that clicking “Home” would take me back there, but this simply isn’t the case. Following the pattern I quickly see emerging, I’m thrown into a new section that in which I find it hard to navigate. It may be my rendering-engine (webkit), but I cannot see any tabs present on this page.
I just want to get home. In a last desperate attempt, I click on the logo for signonsandiego.com, which I catch out of the corner of my eye, in the top right-hand corner—not where I would expect it. Okay, phew. Back to the beginning.
Just the news, please
I decide to jump into a section of the site, crossing my fingers that I don’t become lost again. Hovering over the “News” tab, I’m presented with a list of (presumably) localities. Neat. I click on “North County.” The browser displays a blank page for a while and then I’m given a page that looks similar to the front page. I can’t entirely tell if I’ve changed pages, except by the heading “North County.” Okay, good.
The page is mostly straightforward. In scrolling down it’s length, I get a sense for the breadth of stories offered that apply to this county. The only difficulty in navigating this page is the grouping offered to each story. Because the titles of the stories are exactly the same size as their description, it’s hard for my eyes to distinguish one story from the next. Further, the title of a story comes after it’s date. This doesn’t seem right. I would consider having a date heading and then the stories that were written on that date follow. Lastly, The spacing between the stories helps, but there is much in the way of simple design tweaks that could bring this page to life.
Sports and Business
Next, I decide to try other sections of the site. I’ve been to exactly two different section of the site and found a different presentation for the content inside of each. Maybe the third time is a charm. Upon clicking on “Sports,” I’m presented with even more options for how deep I wish to go down the rabbit hole. I decide to click on Chargers.
The resulting section removes the other options from my view. Again, if I accidentally clicked on Chargers, or wished to return “Home,” I wouldn’t really know where to begin. This leads to an interesting point. On the resulting Chargers page, there are two home links. How does one reconcile this in their mind? Perhaps I wish to go back and choose a different section of the Sports category to browse. I click on the “lower” of the Home links. No dice. It looks like I’ve made my choice and now I’m stuck with it.
I’m almost scared to click on a story, but I do it anyway. The resulting page isn’t nearly as bad as one might imagine. A traditional “online newspaper format” displays the title, author, date, and copy of the story. Everything here seems more or less traditional and easy to use.
Forums (and Chats if you find them)
In poking around the next section of the site, I found it odd that the “Forums” tab offered a popup menu, but that if I clicked the tab itself, I wasn’t presented with the options beneath it. In other words, if I don’t use the popup navigation here, I miss out.
The forum software used on this site is similar to many others I’ve seen before. As such, if you’ve learned one forum, you’ve learned them all. It’s good to see that this newspaper has done a little market research and not picked an obscure forum software.
If you visit the chat section of the site, you’re presented with a number of curious links as well as a picture of John Marelius. I don’t know who the man is or what he has to do with chatting, but there he is. Apparently you can set a reminder for yourself that a chat will occur at the specified date and time. There’s no mention of the purpose of chatting with John, nor how you’ll join the chat. When I click “reader information,” I see the first bullet point: “There’s nothing to do during a Live Event other than read, watch and occasionally send in a comment or vote in the polling questions.” Apparently, this isn’t a chat at all.
Lifestyles? Smart Living?
In our next and final “turn of navigation” I found it odd that the last tab that shows up on the left-hand navigation changes depending on what section you’re in. If you’re on the home page, you’ll find “Smart Living,” if you’re looking at the aforementioned Chat section, you’ll find the “Lifestyles” page. Both of these pages break the conventions of the signonsandiego.com we’ve come to know and love.
Smart Living is apparently a microsite, taking after the Entertainment section. Upon landing there, I find a new navigations structure, a new color scheme, and no mention of signonsandiego. If I look to my browser location bar, I find the information I’m looking for; I’m still on the website. Otherwise, this area appears foreign to me.
Looking around the Smart Living section is like taking a breath of fresh air, though. Although it suffers from many of the problems of it’s parent site. This microsite is easier to browse and makes better use of color and typography. While many of the stories in this section are short, they appear longer due to the narrow content area.
The lifestyles section of the site looks to offer much in the way of local happenings. I can search for arts, movies, bars, restaurants, etc. The problem this causes is that it exponentiates the complexity of the map that users create in their head, while browsing your site. Each of these sections launches a new site, each with a unique design and navigation structure.
Signonsandiego.com offers a compelling, multi-faceted newspaper site to their community. Unfortunately, each section of the site presents a unique challenge as well as its own subnavigation. Each part of signonsandiego.com feels like its own site and this is its core issue.
Because the content in this site spans many different sections, its easy to be reading an article in sports and end up in the entertainment section, which leaves users feeling like they’ve left the site they were on. What more, modern websites and blogs address a specific issue, so the fact that signonsandiego tries to do everything at once seems like overkill.
In the end, users will most likely end up frustrated because at any given time, the section of the site they end up on does not resemble the front page that greeted them when they came to the site.
- Establish Consistency — Try and figure out what elements need to be on each page. Perhaps the logo always appears in the top left. Whatever the case, make sure the some elements appear on every page in the same position. It helps users feel grounded.
- Orient the User and Simplify — Directly following the point above, make sure that your users know where they are on your site at all times. Highlight the “tab” that “contains” the content your user is seeing. Use navigational elements like breadcrumbs and contextual navigation (a la wikipedia.org) to help users get around your content. Finally, try and de-emphasize navigation that takes users to content that isn’t related to what they’re looking at. On some pages, there were nearly 20 links within the top 200 pixels on the page. Is this truly necessary?
- Use Microsites where Appropriate — Many of the sections of signonsandiego.com appear to be self-contained but lack any real sense of distinction. The best example of a microsite from what is present on the site is the Entertainment section, followed by the Smart Living section. Consider providing similar treatments to the other sections, but keep in mind that these microsites should employ consistency and good information architecture so that users feel like they’re still on your website.
- Use Good Graphic Design Principles — Make sure to pay attention to the consistency, repetition, alignment and position of elements on your site. If a “story” contains things like an author, date, and article copy, make the title of the story bigger than those elements, and make sure it precedes them. In this way, your users will understand their grouping. Make sure to establish a convention for how you display this information and stick to it.