Did the width move for you, darling?

Reg makeover, five days in

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Some years back — it might even be ten — The Reg went live with a major site overhaul — by mistake. Some contract techie pressed the red button, it all switched on and the first we knew about it was when we woke up, saw the new site had magically materialised and we had to start swimming for our lives.

I now thank that dork, because that was the least painful redesign I’ve ever been through — no pre-launch tension, a built-in excuse as response to the barrage of criticism you always get, and a sense of relief that the damn thing worked at all. In publishing, a redesign is well up there with moving house, getting divorced and sticking hot needles in your eyes on the scale of things you don’t want to do but know you’re eventually going to have to. Apart from the hot needles, probably — they’re what people are going to accuse you of doing to them when the new design ships.

Then after that, you do the redesign sweep-up article. Here, traditionally, you come up some bullshit about readers feeling they’ve lost an old friend, needing time to get comfortable with the makeover, and then you tell them that it’s all really in their interests, and how much more wonderful and functional they’re going to find the new design when they get used to it.

Well, screw that. Like practically every other redesign in publishing, The Register’s is in the interests of us, the readers and the advertisers — all three need to be present for the publication to exist, and they all need to be sufficiently happy to want to stick around. So, how do we think we did with that?

Well, some readers in the comments section are definitely not happy, with three things in particular — fixed width, the new comment icons, and the disappearance of the link to Odds & Sods — attracting heavy flak.

Odds & Sods was a slight surprise to us as we thought, BOFH aside, that most of the traffic there came from front page stories. We should probably have figured out there would be a problem before the readers told us, but when they did we put it back. Comment icons? The vote panning the new icons was practically unanimous among those who comment on stories, and these being all the people who actually use the icons, we executed a swift retreat.

I should however put straight those of you who think the icons refresh was part of a broader, crazed, Web 2.0 fashionista plot. Oh no — somebody on the team simply thought it’d be a good idea to retread them alongside the redesign. They’ve made a full confession in exchange for anonymity and 24 hour protection. We’ll let you know when the 24 hours is up.

And fixed width? As we said at the outset, we expected a good bit of flaming for this and we got what we expected. And as we said on Monday, we changed to fixed width because it gives us greater control over the look and feel of The Register. We think that that control will help us present stories more effectively, and give our longer stories more exposure, for longer. The no pasarán fixed-width partisans aren’t going to agree with us, and indeed we accept that we might turn out to be wrong. But if that’s the case, we propose to let our own stupidity come up and bite us in its own time. We have made the change, and now we intend to build on it or bust.

Having said that, what you see now is most certainly not set in stone. Some people have complained the font is too small, or just wrong, so we’ll look at that, and we’ve made a couple of adjustments already. And as some of you think the width we’ve chosen is too conservative, we’ll do a reality check on that. We’ve got browser glitches to nail down, and we need to unbreak the mobile platforms the new design seems to have broken. We should also be looking at how effectively we cater for smaller screens and very large screens, and considering how we might make our various alternative front doors (e.g. the Week’s Headlines view) more flexible.

And then there are the bitches from the comments that don’t come down to straight coding issues but that we think require an explanation. Plus the ones we find weird/baffling. Here they are in no particular order:

Facebook alert We’re baffled by the commenters who accuse us of coming over all Web 2.0, aping Facebook and MySpace, or trying to look like the Sun. As I understand it, some of the younger members of staff have Facebook accounts, but I’ve never knowingly looked at a page myself, and the other people who built or signed off the designs aren’t exactly noted social networkers either. And the Sun? Last time I looked (researching some terror scare nonsense, since you ask) it was a weird pile of random junk. I heard a rumour that it’s subsequently done a redesign, but I’m not going to look in case I catch something.

I think what the critics may be doing here is equating design with Web 2.0, and that doesn’t strike me as entirely rational. Granted, a lot of Web 2.0 is bollocks on stilts plus IP larceny with a shiny skin — sometimes a pretty shiny skin — stuck on the top, but that does not mean that Web 2.0 is lurking under everything that looks halfway nice. So do you pick the printed edition of Wired and snarl ‘Web 2.0’ bollocks? Yes, I suppose you do — but you know what I mean. With the Reg redesign we wanted to make the site better looking, more coherent and more functional, and anyone who’s going to reject that as some kind of Web 2.0 sellout is likely to find themselves living in a progressively smaller world.

Too much scrolling We’ve been arguing over this among ourselves for nearly a year now. The stuff at the top of the page gets the most traffic, so you tend to put the stuff that’s most likely to get the most traffic at the top of the page, and the less popular stuff further down. People are willing to scroll a little, but the further it is down the page, the fewer people go there. That was certainly the case with the old Reg design, and with the new one we’ve made a conscious effort to make the page more generally interesting, so that people find it more worthwhile to go further down it. We’ll obviously be looking at the costs and benefits of this, and equally obviously we’ll knock it off if the idea turns out to be a complete dodo.

Too many, too big, ads There are, as I said on Monday, no more ads on the site than there were last week. We’ve added two new standard slots per page, and minused the standard slot we used to have in the middle of the stories. That makes the stories a tad more readable and gives us the flexibility to use pictures better in them (shit — pictures=Web 2.0, we did it again…).

The right hand column, headed by the Top Stories panel, is intended to mix advertising and editorial, and in principle is entirely flexible. The idea here is that we should use it to promote longer, more in-depth articles without our being plagued by the problem of them scrolling down to the bottom of the main body of stories on the left. This kind of story is expensive to do, and we think that the promotion slots we had previously weren’t adequate to give all of our wares as much exposure as they deserved.

We need to do some more work on how we present editorial in this column, because it’s not going to work unless readers get used to the idea that there’s interesting stuff in it. The graphics seem to have come as a bit of a shock to some of the commenters, so we might look at putting some text-only links in to stop the article links being confused with the ads. We’ll probably also put more, and more varied, editorial material there. And for the record, we should currently be displaying a maximum of two ads and three editorial feature links in that column, with the editorial links in the Top Stories coming on top of that. The top ad slot is the one that commands most revenue, and they get less worthwhile the further down you go, so stuffing the column with them would just be plain stupid.

We hate you, we’re leaving We’ve had several spit on us and tell us they’re off to The Other Place (but not as yet to The Other Other Place), but so far so good, our stats for the week look healthy. We’ll need a little time to figure out what’s working and what’s not, areas of the site where we may be getting more traffic and areas where we may be getting less, but we think we have grounds to be optimistic.

Which brings me back to the point of the whole exercise. What we do is produce stories that we think are worth doing, for people who are interested in them. We’ve done reasonably well at this for a good few years now, and our objective for subsequent years is simply to do more of it, better, for more people (there you go, no ambition). And eat, of course, we need to eat. Alongside that, the design is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We think it will make it easier for us to do what we want to do, and easier for the readers to get at what we do. If you want to tell us, constructively, where you think we might be going wrong or how we might improve things, please go ahead. There as some things we’re not going to do, but we’re prepared to listen. Well OK, not always… ®


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