About Time: SMH Website Redesign

Topic: The Intarweb 14 years, 1 month ago

The website of Sydney broadsheet newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald, smh.com.au, has been redesigned once again. Earlier this week I noticed that the SMH’s sister newspaper in Melbourne, The Age, had been given a makeover and wondered why we Sydneysiders were missing out — no more, since the new SMH site finally launched on Thursday (03 Nov 2005).

It’s interesting that they don’t seem to have publicised the changes that well. There is a Flash introduction to what’s new that my friend Fiona pointed out to me, but I don’t see this linked from anywhere on the site. All I could find was a blog entry about the redesign.

Good Improvements…

The new look is crisper and cleaner. The use of shadows and shading around containers helps in visually differentiating content sections. While news sites seem to enjoy cramming as much content into as small a space as possible, the new SMH site luckily retains enough whitespacing to avoid looking cluttered. Best of all, articles are now displayed in a larger font with greater leading (linespacing) — much easier on the eyes.

Personally, I like the drop-down navigation bar at the top as it saves space, though it can’t be a replacement for all other navigation. As long as the right column contains relevant links to surrounding sections and related articles I’ll be happy.

Unfortunately pop-up ads are still used, although Firefox’s popup blocker seems to catch them all now. The placement of ads appears to be improved compared to the old site (from memory). The ads don’t seem to be as intrusive — I think they are better integrated into the layout than they used to be?

…But Not All Smooth Sailing

However, a serious usability issue plagues the new design. Articles are now spread out over a multiple pages and you need to follow links and wait for new pages to load to continue reading. Thankfully, the team at SMH seem to have gotten enough complaints that they’re going to capitulate and reverse this. I wonder why they decided to do it in the first place? Was it to increase ad impressions in search of greater revenues?

Also, on some articles (it seems most of the ones accessed from the home page), you have no idea where you are. There is no breadcrumb trail. I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker as I generally tend to read an article then use ‘Back’ to return to the index page, but this is still bad!

Even more annoyingly, their RSS feeds are still ridiculously meagre offerings, providing only headlines. What is so wrong about providing at least a paragraph of intro copy with each headline in the RSS feed? Hint to the SMH team: if I had some idea what content is actually on your site, I might actually visit it more often!

Most disappointing of all though is that the new website fails to validate (the homepage fails with over 250 errors) despite the developers bothering to declare an XHTML 1.0 Transitional doctype. It’s a shame, because a lot of the errors appear to be simple issues with characters not being encoded properly or care not being taken to use the correct markup syntax. It’s good to see the site otherwise uses standards-based markup for layout and pages linearise well (displays in a semantically logical way even without stylesheets).

My Verdict

I worked at rival News Interactive during the last redesign of NEWS.com.au in Dec 2004/Jan 2005. While I could never bring myself to read the tabloid trash that News publishes, I really think our website at the time was better than SMH’s previous offering and made better use of the medium than SMH’s lowest-denominator presentation.

Of course, NEWS.com.au is now a lot more cluttered than when I left, lacking polish and taking forever to load (thanks to an overload of ads and gimmicks). They also seem to be happy leaving the site breaking in Firefox. Not to mention, they removed my favourite feature! OK, so it was one that I wrote, but hey… ;) (It made text flow nicely around island ads in articles regardless of font size.)

Overall, the SMH redesign is a welcome change. At a time when underlining links has been shunned for years, when subtle, glassy 3D shading is in and Ajax isn’t even a new craze anymore, their previous design from 2004 had begun to feel a bit dated.

I’m glad to finally have a news site to call home that both looks good and contains respectable content! I just wish we could have a major news site that validated for once and provided decent RSS feeds. Thumbs up.

Me? COFA SA El Presidente? Windsor Rd/Old Windsor Rd Roadworks

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