Newspapers are facing increasing challenges in their market, with offline sales (and supporting ad funding) under threat from free news papers like the Metro, as well as online publishing offerings (including their own sites) that readers access on the move (via smartphones) and at home and office.
Revenue streams are being reconsidered and across the whole publishing industry is the question of payment for online content.
The Scotsman and Herald papers have competed locally in Scotland for decades from bases in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. But which one provides a better user experience?
We took a close look at the websites for the two Scottish papers through an expert evaluation and also some informal usability tests with users performing a variety of tasks, and ranked the publications across several different categories, from first impressions to finding news and registration.
Especially for first time visitors to the site, the initial impression is critical as people try to get an overview of what is on offer, orientate themselves to the navigation and consider the feature content.
Certainly not everyone comes in through the ‘front door’ of the home page, especially if they have followed a link to a specific article but it is an important page for considering the broader offering of the publication.
Both pages carry 3rd party advertisements, a necessary fact of life and income stream.
The primary navigation is cleaner on The Herald, with fewer choices for users to read through and a cleaner, clearer visual hierarchy.
Greater variety in text size from headline to deck and content also provide more white space and a better perceived layout. Bullet point lists help provide visual anchors and to make content easier to scan.
On first impression, there is a lot of navigation underneath the main tabs with bolded text links beneath the tabs and sub navigation.
The page appears less tidy than The Herald, the overuse of bold and red text headers on the page making it look more cluttered, and there is a considerable amount of scrolling to be done.
Finding a specific local story (Rockness)
People usually come to their favourite online news site with a story in mind they want to research.
Especially for regional papers such as these, they expect better and deeper coverage than that offered from national news outlets.
With the topic in mind, visitors start using the navigation to hopefully step toward their goal. We used the music festival Rockness in Scotland as the topic to search for.
There were two possible routes. The first was through News > Scotland > Highlands and Islands. The other was News > Festivals, leading to a different website that opened with information on all festivals.
The word Festivals in the subnavigation helped to make this particular task easy to perform.
This proved more difficult. In choosing News, the information returned did not provide a horizontal navigation that makes The Scotsman so easy to locate the festival content. ‘Arts and ent’ as a top level navigation option also proved unhelpful, and eventually the search functionality proved necessary.
Navigation through the site
A clear navigation is the browser’s friend as it helps to divide up the content into logical sections and provides a sense of place in the site whiles moving through the site.
Both sites used a horizontal top level tab set with topic & subtopics, similar to the new BBC News site layout and both had potential for improvement from our experience
There was an easy route home through the tabbed navigation, wherever the user is on the site. This is something which is still sadly lacking on some websites.
A puzzling drawback is the fact the tabs did not always change appearance to show your selected choice.
For instance in the image shown the Business tab has been selected and we are clearly in the business section from the page header, yet the tab selection still indicates Home.
As mentioned in the ‘First Impressions’ section, there are too many options below the tabbed horizontal navigation with a mixture of bolded and non bolded text, meaning the user will have to work harder to know their place in the site.
The Scotsman does benefit greatly by the vertical navigation which appears when accessing particular areas. Another area where the Scotsman navigation is problematic is where the second and third layer of horizontal navigation under the tabbed section changes depending on your location within the site.
So users have to then revisit the vertical navigation in order to identify what is contained within the respective section.
Again, The Herald benefited from a clear route to the homepage within the tabbed horizontal navigation.
The navigation did change the colour to show users what section they are in, but it did not have a vertical navigation.
Sections within the news areas were split up as news, politics, crime & courts, health, education, transport and environment and world news. It did not create a split by region, so it was difficult to navigate further to stories about specific regions of Scotland.
In order to see all the sections and items on a page, you need to scroll down the page to see the split of the subsequent sections.
Finding general news (what’s on this weekend )
Often site visitors are in a mood to browse, to see what content is offered by a publication especially for the ‘lighter’ information such as lifestyle and entertainment.
In these situations of less directed navigation, the publication needs to entice and persuade the user while still providing a solid structure for navigating the site.
This was generally seen as much easier.
Once the navigational hurdle of a section labelled ‘Arts and ents’ was surpassed, the Herald had a handy search tool for finding events.
Again the more open page layout and bullet point content structure for content made the page seem more amenable for scanning and browsing.
Using the search opened up another window with results, which was not expected as there was no reference to a new window opening.
This was not such an easy task and not one where visitors felt in control of the content. It was not helped by the navigation where clicking the Lifestyle navigation link leads to a page titled Living.Scotsman.com but with Home still marked in the top level navigation.
It made interpreting the location difficult as the user needs to consider that 1) they are in the Home section still according to the tab and within that they must be in the Living / lifestyle section (which is above the home tab), and the Lifestyle section must contain sub sections such as Film, music books etc which have appeared under the tabs.
But then again there are other items beneath in bold which were there before (Festivals, Reviews. Blogs etc). Altogther this was seen as a confusing marking of the user’s place.
Lifestyle contains reviews rather than what’s up and coming, so it’s easy to find out what has been on, but not what is on. Clicking on Festivals takes you to a separate site powered by The Scotsman.
Despite the challenging trading conditions, online publications have one main advantage over their paper-based cousins: the ability to offer videos and audio podcasts from journalists and sometimes other readers.
News consumers’ expectations are changing and this type of content will surely grow in the future, and on both sites navigating the video content led to some frustrating experiences.
It takes some searching to spot the link to videos within The Scotsman. It is located on the 3rd layer of horizontal navigation labelled ‘podcasts and videos’.
Once accessed, it boldly introduced itself with Video Archives and offered a clearer layout than The Herald, with a less cluttered page, and secondary navigation rather than having to scroll down.
Having small images as well as text improves the user experience of the page, as well as the accessibility. There is also the apparent categorisation of videos into relevant sections due to the left hand navigation as shown in the image.
Despite appearances, this does not present a categorisation of videos but rather links to the actual news stories.
The Herald’s navigation is less cluttered in general, therefore making it easier to find.
However, the page was much more busy, with an overload of choices on the page and a lack of apparent categorisation of the videos (without extensive scrolling to discover a few categories).
So although users can find the page easily due to the navigation, their workload on accessing the screen will be much bigger, slowing down their journey.
The first step to a lasting relationship is getting to know the other person, and that’s the purpose of registration forms on sites.
Online registration suffers from a reputation problem due to the fact it involves a form – a generally unpopular part of the web experience.
The form help must be timely, interactions intuitive and the process must be respectful of users privacy concerns and expectations.
The Scotsman’s registration form has a good start in that it tells you the benefits of registering to encourage readers to register. Amazingly many forms still seem to hide the benefits of registration whilst expecting users to go ahead and register.
The form is easy to complete, and users are given the option to add more personal details but only if they wish. The terms and conditions were reasonably clear and the call to action button at the bottom of the page was also clear.
At no point was there any user help on how to choose a password. Later in the form, users are asked for their date of birth, however no formatting help was provided here, so users have to guess what format to use.
The gender field was given as a drop down for male/female which is a strange choice of form element. A radio button would be much quicker for users to complete here.
The Herald used inline formatting instruction and validation to help with completion of the form. This helps minimise errors for passwords as the user will see instantly what the restrictions are.
The ‘Why Register’ section on the right hand side is also laid out nicely, although it would be more noticeable to users if it was located above the form.
Users tend to focus on form fields they need to complete, and often ignore any surrounding text.
Another positive aspect – having a title with ‘Free’ in it, means the visitor will be more likely to complete the registration form.
Access to archives for stories
Another advantage the online version has over print is the ability to delve into the past articles, great for researchers and the historically curious.
But with so much data to store and organise it is important that a clear information architecture and navigation are provided.
The Archives section was easy to find in the top level navigation. However, when accessing the archives area, the initial page is overpowering with a lot for the user to take in. But in terms of content the Scotsman digital archive is superb, with content as far back as 1817 (although on a paid basis as premium content).
The search tab would have been the ideal thing to be displayed rather than the image on the left.
When the search tab is accessed, the default radio button is Boolean, and users are told to use the search tips to understand what Boolean means. The default would work better as ‘All words’ since the Boolean concept is slightly harder to understand for most users.
This was also easy to access, and had a search box. The initial search page offered categories with the most popular topics listed as links.
This could be further improved however with more sorting and filtering options to allow users to search through the archives (dating only back to 1989) and having greater control over the archive search.
Contacting the paper
Whether for offering editorial content, searching for a job or placing advertising, an easy point of contact is good for the user and the publisher.
This was fairly easy. There is a contact link which opens up a form where users can choose why they are contacting The Scotsman.
Also, the correct use of form fields is applied here with the check boxes for specifying the reason for contact
The only option is to book an ad rather than contact the newspaper.
However, clear instructions are provided on what to do. Direct email links to individuals is a good thing, as users can identify the correct point of contact, making the user journey a more personalised experience.
Search functionality & logic
Many users resort to search when searching for a specific topic, especially if they have had no success with the site categorical navigation. Usability in search includes the logic of the search algorithm and presentation of results, and is a key area for making or breaking the website user experience.
The Scotsman uses Google as a search tool and therefore inherits a familiarity for most users as well as the features which Google provide. The results offer the user with the alternative spelling helping the user to recover. The ability to search the site and the web is also an advantage here.
The results using the same typo also returned results with the correct spelling. Some of the results however were perplexing: articles on healthcare appearing before articles about Holyrood. The search functionality did provide good filters to check out today, the past 7 days, 30 days and 12 months as an option, as well as the ability to sort by date or relevance.
An important drawback was that many of the results only showed the headline and the date. The lack of a ‘snippet’ of content with the keyword highlighted (as provided by the Scotsman) makes choosing the best option much harder, and a great deal of ‘pogo-sticking’ between the search results and individual pages will result.
Online news is immediately open to a wider audience – but only if the site has been designed with web accessibility in mind. We took a brief look at the web accessibility features of each site.
As with The Scotsman, the alt text in The Herald were generally in place. However sometimes there were curious alt tags e.g. Photo NA, licence NA, and sometimes alt tags were not provided for spacer (1 pixel) images.
In contrast to The Scotsman, The Herald did not use pop ups for weather details.
Both websites had few failures on the quintessential accessibility feature of providing alternative text on all images. Other accessibility issues were more prevalent. The Scotsman had a repeat of title headings on pages which could be very confusing to screen reader users.
For example the image below shows four sections all titled ‘news’. Overall, The Scotsman website had links within pages that were more easily identifiable than The Herald.
When looking at the weather, The Scotsman provides an unannounced pop up with the weather details, which is potentially confusing to screen reader users.
Trying to compare the usability of the two leading newspapers in Scotland is a complex task with many elements as described above. Clearly both papers had some good user experience points and others where the usability could be improved.
To add a degree of quantification to the process, we have decided to award two points to the paper that won each category, and one point to the other.
|Usability Criteria||The Scotsman||The Herald|
|Finding a Specific story||2||1|
|Finding General News||1||1|
|Mulitmedia & Videos||2||1|
|Contacting the paper||2||1|
By a slight margin, the Scotsman can be considered the winner in the usability and user experience contest between the two sites, despite an initial first impression which is less attractive.
However, any given user is likely to have their own experience which will vary greatly from this based on their own priorities and journeys followed in using the site.
This is the nature of user experience, that the user brings with them their own preferences and goals, and it is through that that their personal verdict of user experienced can be declared.
Clearly the online versions of both newspapers do have room for improvement. Online publishing is a key area for user experience, and the businesses behind these papers have a difficult task of navigating the commercial realities (such as the need for advertisement on the pages as an income stream) and enhancing the user experience through good content and navigation.
By incorporating some of the recommendations mentioned in this article, and keeping an eye on presentation styles used by some leading organisations such as the BBC, both of the Scottish newspapers have the opportunity to improve the user experience for their readers.