Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Times New Omen

August 5, 2008

A short while back, the folks at Adaptive Path invited me and the gang at Unit to contribute to a cool project they had in the works for Mozilla Labs. Our part would be to design how The New York Times sports page would look a few years into the future. Now, the star of the show is not our page design; it’s the Aurora browser concept that Adaptive Path have crafted. But I thought it might be fun to examine the Times design all the same.

Even though our page design rightly played only a bit role in the project, Angela and I took the opportunity to apply some critically logical thinking about the future of news and information to our concept. It was a fun and stimulating exercise, and although the project videos would show no visible interaction with the sports page we were designing, we decided to think deeply into the concept anyway.

Luckily, Angela and I are each currently working on important news media and news information design projects for clients of Unit Interactive. These projects have not only brought us vital, real-world information about the evolving nature and likely future of news and information on the Web, they’ve also forced us to think long, hard, and critically about the possibilities and pitfalls for the future of all news and information. So when we began brainstorming concepts for the future Times design, we were lucky enough to begin from relatively firm footing

Direction and core ideas

As for direction, we were mostly advised to let our imaginations run wild. We were given very little in the way of constraints and were able to enjoy a wide latitude regarding concepts. But because our design concept was supposed to reflect a news website a few years into the future, we had to think beyond just the publication in question and take a great many elements of media evolution into account. We also received some important ideas from the folks at Adaptive Path. They suggested a couple of core interaction conventions that were important to the interface design.

Here’s our design concept for the future New York Times main sports page.

Design concept for The New York Times | Classic

See a larger version (still not full-size)

…and here are the fundamental concepts on which we based the design:

The dim future for proprietary news:
Many of the more important concepts for the design were governed by our predictions for how proprietary, branded news sites (like The NY Times) will survive the next 10 years. Frankly, we see proprietary news becoming largely irrelevant. Branded news does not seem to have a future, as walled-garden news outlets are a non-sequitur on the Web. We therefore dubbed this design “The New York Times – Classic;” sort of a legacy presentation of NYT’s news.

Columnists and community

We worked to come up with a valid reason for someone wanting to visit a proprietary news website and the most compelling reason was a news organization’s quality stable of staff writers. Therefore, one of the primary features of our design is the prominent list of writers/personalities who write only for the Times. People tend to follow quality and we’re assuming that people come to this site for the contextually-grouped, quality journalism offered together here. Another potential draw would be the community of readers following the stories presented here. This future NYT has an active discussion and citizen journalist community.

The Content:
For the most part, we assumed that all content is available in all formats—text, audio, video. We also assumed that a user can manipulate how the content in those formats is accessed and shared—individually or in combination.

We also thought it relevant (and were later advised by Adaptive Path) to assume that the content shows some indication of its temporal nature. So in places, the content fades out as new content appears on the page.

The Interface:
Where’s the navigation? Well, in the version you see in the Adaptive Path video, it’s turned off. If you look at the top of the comp closely, you’ll also see that “voice browsing” is also turned off. We figured that simply by saying “sports,” or “politics” the site should respond accordingly (if you have that feature turned on). The primary navigation feature is the large, prominent, multi-context search field.

The navigation array for the future NYT

On the top-right of the page, you can see a control panel for your media, account, and preferences. The tray on the bottom of that panel opens for more specific options.

The main story area features its own control panel (to the right of the big photo) to control media formats for the main stories (listed below the photo). There’s a tab on the panel you can open to reveal more detailed options. Here, the user has selected the story about the recent Cubs loss and it is highlighted, showing a story teaser and more media options. The main stories titles section operates like a wheel (much like the Aurora browser concept) for story navigation.

Main story interface

The sport-specific sections below (center) show older content fading out, but each section has a tab pull-down to reveal more content; you can manually control how much content is visible for any given section, according to your preference. Main options for each of these sections are to show the stories from “this hour” or “this day.”

The box scores, on the left of the page, can also be manually manipulated to scroll through the horizontal wheel of content; showing final, upcoming, and in-progress games’ scores. You may notice that those scores for in-progress games offer the option to listen to the audio broadcast for that game while you browse. The “view all” button will open a comprehensive interface of scores for that section.

An omen of things to come?

So those are the high points of our pretend page design. It was a terrific exercise and while it was meant only to play a small part in the Aurora project, Angela and I got good use of the thought and collaboration that went into it. We believe that both our own brainstormed ideas and those offered up by the folks at Adaptive Path have merit and relevance to real-world projects and to the future of news and information.

We continue to mull over the ideas that came from this project and we think we’re better prepared for our current news media projects and those to come in the future because of it. Again, ours was just a small element in the more important, larger Aurora project and we certainly look forward to what fruit Adaptive Path’s work will bear for the future of Web browsing. In the mean time, I think there’s plenty to consider and reconsider regarding the future of news.