WashingtonPost.com's Latest Redesign Throws Readers for a Loop

Carolyn Hax fans revolt in comments; managing editor Raju Narisetti responds to our questions

By: Harry Jaffe

Being an old-fashioned sort, I scrolled to the bottom of washingtonpost.com Wednesday morning and clicked on the line that would allow me to see the Post front page in daily newsprint form. I was greeted by this line:

“We are experiencing some technical difficulties . . . We regret the temporary inconvenience.”

Frustrated, I quit the site for Huffington Post and the New York Times. Luckily, the Post’s “Today’s Paper” feature is back up and running today, but I fear other problems with the Web site’s latest redesign aren’t temporary; they seem to be persistent and littered across nearly every page, which come off as more cluttered, dizzying, complex, and hard to navigate under the new system.

“I think it’s a disaster,” says Kristopher Baumann, head of the DC police union. “It used to be where I started the day; now it’s the last place I go. It’s a maze—it’s not designed to help you get information.”


Baumann isn’t alone. Fanatic fans of Carolyn Hax’s advice column, “Tell Me About It,” flooded her with complaints on March 18. Her columns, among the Post’s most popular, were old, hard to find, and quit coming directly to e-mail boxes.

“I miss my Carolyn Hax fix with my morning coffee,” wrote one commenter.

“What’s up with the Washington Post?” Another asked. “I check it every day, but it hasn’t updated in several days. Now I can only find you on Facebook.”

“It’s weird,” the same commenter continued, “that such a big organization can’t post your column correctly. To be honest, it makes me wonder about other postings that are—or aren’t—on their site.”

Another reader concurred: “The new improved (hah) web site has messed up my beloved Carolyn Hax page.”

And Hax finally threw up her hands: “One word for today’s chat—fustercluck—even though that’s not a word.”

She promised to send the complaints and concerns to her editors. Eventually they might reach Raju Narisetti, the Post’s managing editor who tells me he “owns” the redesign. But Hax fans might not feel the love.

“I would like to strongly challenge this broad generalization,” Narisetti responded to my observation that Hax’s online readers were in rebellion. His lengthy response attempted to explain the ease of finding Hax, but he did allow that Hax has “heard from people who couldn’t find her columns on the site.” He quickly implied they’re dummies: “All the links that I can find on the site work.”

It’s so easy to navigate the new washingtonpost.com that the site at one point included this “headline” on its home page: “How to Find Your Favorite Blogs.” Potential online readers need so much help that the Post set up a special tutorial. I gotta ask: Does anyone have enough time or interest to get schooled in how to work a Web site? Or will they just skip to a site that’s made for ease?

Speaking of ease, why is it so hard for washingtonpost.com to figure out how to rank its most popular stories? For the past few weeks the same stories have been listed twice. For example:

1. Audit: Pentagon overpaid oilman by up to $200 million.
2. Audit: Pentagon overpaid oilman by up to $200 million.
Or number 5 on March 23: “Ask Tom–Ask Tom.”

That would be a chat with Sietsema–Sietsema, the food critic.

You might chalk some of these up to minor annoyances, like the photo of a flaming plane going down in Libya, with no caption, which Narisetti attributed to “a module that didn’t come with an automatic caption that the Web editors could use.” Modules aside, washingtonpost.com is lately an Internet jungle with a thick underbrush of information that is as profuse as it is arduous.

“I would particularly like to very strongly challenge both these assertions,” Narisetti responded by e-mail. “The goal of the redesign is to showcase more Post content in a more engaging way.”

Narisetti declares victory, because he says the number of visitors to washingtonpost.com has increased. Assuming that’s true, I can’t help but doubt they were drawn in by ease of navigation. And if they feel anything like I do, they might not return.

For the curious, I’ve posted Narisetti’s full e-mail to me below.

Mr Jaffe

I just landed in DC and figured it would help to respond with some detailed answers/data to the very specific questions you sent Marcus on Saturday, so here goes:

1. Who can talk to me about the redesigned web site? Seems to be having problems?

As the managing editor for all things digital at the Post, I would be the best person to speak to on this. In any redo of a site that is as widely used (17 million plus unique visitors a month in the US- based on Comscore) and is as deep as washingtonpost.com in terms of content, features and multimedia, it will have its rollout challenges for both the news and tech teams, and we are no exception. The site was being overhauled after almost a decade and it wasn’t just a redesign but a change in the publishing system behind it, meaning there is significant behind-the-scenes technology change. From the news side, I anticipated—and told our readers in a note on the site–that they will most likely see some glitches and that we would like their feedback so we can fix and improve the site accordingly (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/redesign-announcement/letter-from-the-editor.html). I am a big believer in newsrooms and news websites being in permanent “beta” as we try to constantly improve the user experience. With that being said, yes, there were and are and (likely) will continue to be some tech troubles in these early days and we are working on them.

To put the site’s performance in some context and share actual data, on any given weekday, over 2 million unique visitors come to washingtonpost.com (based on our internal tracking). As of this weekend, from the nearly 12 million such visitors since last Sunday’s evening rollout, we have received and, in most cases, responded to, about 1,000 emails from readers about the site.

A majority of these emails flagged issues—many were about their favorite content having moved and their difficulties in the first day or two in finding the right links on the homepage or through the new navigation bar; and some also wrote in saying they like the changes. Several of us have responded individually to the emails and continue to work on the issues raised by such readers. I expect the majority of those who took the time to write in are indeed people who are fans of washingtonpost.com and are having to deal with changes to their normal usage patterns and, in some cases, not finding content they were looking for in a particular place. And it is critical not to see them as a tiny portion of overall visitors but to address their issues or point them in the right direction. As head of digital content and content strategy at the Post, I know the audience has vast choices online and it is up to me to make sure they keep coming back to the Post.

2. Hax’s fans can’t get their fix and are in rebellion. I would like to strongly challenge this broad generalization. Carolyn’s RSS feed was redirected either Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and the redirect is properly switching to the new feed. Before that, audiences who read her work via a feed should have been getting the old feed without interruption. (In general what’s going on with these feeds is that Pheedo, the vendor who places the ads on them, was switching them over on a rolling basis, and people would receive the old feed until the new one kicked in. That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept up the link to Orbit, our old publishing system, so the feeds wouldn’t get stale.)

A vast majority of Carolyn’s readers read her column and chat on our site and not via a feed, and there were several ways to access them off our homepage, starting from “In The News” near the top of the homepage (where it previously was when we called it Hot Topics) and often also two featured slots elsewhere on the page. She is one of our most popular columnists and I, for one, am looking to grow her audience and not diminish it through a design change.

Since I personally receive every email that comes to ideas@washpost.com (the email we gave readers to contact us about the redesign), I specifically went back through them again and looked through the comments that have come in this week related to Carolyn. They revolve around navigation difficulties—people were having trouble finding her, and asking for a better connection between her column of the day and the discussion.

When you click on Advice you get a page on which she’s very prominent—- her most recent column, and her discussion right next to it. When you click to the column there’s a button below the comments section that points to her archive—not very prominent and perhaps needs to be made more evident. Carolyn has been forwarding the feedback to the Ideas email and also posted a link to her columns in her most recent chat because she said she’s heard from people who couldn’t find her columns on the site. All the links that I can find on the site work. I suspect there are still some people who came to her RSS feed or her column page through some different route and therefore have bookmarks that lead them to dead ends—as we hear from them we can give them the new links.

3. Today’s front page has a great photo of a flaming plane nose down in Libya—no caption, no explanation, no sense.

The redesigned washingtonpost.com is based on modules, essentially templates that can be used by web editors for various scenarios. Because the launch of the redesign coincided with a major news event, a particular “hero” module, called H7, which uses a single large image with a package of stories was used for several days. Unfortunately, this module didn’t come with an automatic caption that the web editors could use. They still made it work by giving the relevant photo information in the blurb even as the design/dev teams were working to address the issue, including the Libya plane crash example you cite. It wasn’t perfect but the blurb next to the image as part of the story conveyed what the specific image was about.

Separately, we now have an updated module to let the homepage editors run a caption. Incidentally, we have about 100 different modules on the site, part of an 180-module library that is being created and, based on incoming feedback, we are making sure the new modules being built address specific gaps.

4. Information is profuse and impossible to navigate. I would particularly like to very strongly challenge both these assertions. The goal of the redesign is to showcase more Post content in a more engaging way. The navigation, while changed and unfamiliar in the early days, actually helps make the content more easily accessible. For instance, providing Lifestyle and Entertainment nav buttons rather than the old Arts & Living, providing new navigation buttons for World and Investigations content is all aimed at making navigation easier.

In the first two days alone, the new World section front, now available via the main nav on the homepage, increased by over 100% in terms of its pageviews, visits and unique visitors. You can say it is all probably due to Japan and while that is the content reason, the numbers I am giving you are for the “section front” not people clicking on an article link off the homepage and going to the article page.

Even “old” sections have benefited from the new redesign, making their content easier to find and consume. In the first two days of the redesign, our already popular Sports section “front”, now highlighted more prominently in the nav and redesigned, increased visits by almost 8% and daily unique visitors by 13%.

As a facts-based newsroom editor, while I respect and indeed rely on anecdotal impressions and feedback to help validate performance as all journalists do, I would prefer to go with data when coming to conclusions, especially early conclusions.

So, in the first full 24 hours of Monday’s official launch, washingtonpost.com had 2.87 million unique visitors (49% higher than average of the past four Mondays); 15.1 million page views (70% over past four Mondays). The redesign can’t take all the credit—after all Japan and Middle East were big stories this past week—but in typical redesigns of news sites, there is a significant and sustained dip in traffic . Our audience, their consumption of Post content and the engagement through the week remains strong. Yesterday (Saturday), nearly a week into the redesign, washingtonpost.com got 1.47 million visitors (21% over Saturday daily target and 7% over past four Saturdays average); 6.43 million pageviews (7.5% above Saturday daily target and same as past four Saturdays). Cumulatively, through Saturday, for the month of March both visitors and visits are running ahead of March goals for that period.

Some people have complained we should have warned readers of the change. With a change of this magnitude and one involving replacing the publishing system—akin to changing the engine of an airplane while in flight–we couldn’t assume we would rollout at a set time. We did it on Sunday because it is a lower-traffic day. And then we ran a full-page explanation of the changes in the Post newspaper on Monday morning, keyed off a Page 1 notice. We publicized a live chat with me where I took questions for two hours—the chat was scheduled for one hour—and we have a comprehensive section that has a Q&A and several other explanations about the changes that have been and are very prominently linked off the homepage every day.

So far, early indications are that some readers have had issues with content moving; we continue to find sporadic complaints about site-load issues in different browsers (it is a challenge to deal with specific users since testing across all browsers has generally not identified systemic issues but we are responding to users individually to help them to the extent we can); some readers would prefer the old Today’s Paper approach (even though that pointed them to the web and really not to the paper versions of stories) than the new one that actually shows the paper online.

But it is too early to judge and ultimately the proof is in actual reader behavior on the site. We have goals for the site and we measure them every day (in some cases every hour) and ultimately, as Managing Editor, I “own” the goals, which span from bringing more people to more Post content and having them come back. And I am happy to be judged on our actual performance once our audience has had time to play around and absorb all the changes, than a rush to call it a success or a failure or somewhere in-between. At the end of the day, the goal is to increase our audience and increase their engagement with Post content and measuring that objectively would be the true measure of success or failure but at this point, it is way too early to call it.

5. Who is responsible for the redesign?

The redesign process began over a year ago and is part of a planned redesign of Post. The paper’s redesign rolled out in November 2009, followed by a change in print/online publishing systems and the launch of the redesigned washingtonpost.com. An effort of this scale involves many people–design, news, tech, marketing, executive, etc. While I don’t manage the technology team that codes, runs and supports the site, the short answer to your question—if you are looking for a single person responsible for the redesign—is that it is me. I own both the redesign and the publishing system projects, much as I owned the redesign of the paper and the integration of print and online in 2009, three major tasks Marcus Brauchli hired me to own and execute when I was hired in Jan 2009.

With regards

Raju

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