New Site Continues NPR’s Push Beyond Audio

If you’ve visited NPR’s Web site since 11:30 p.m. Sunday, you’ve seen a new site, one with bigger, bolder headlines, more white space on the home page, a simpler navigation and an audio player in the top right corner.

The redesigned site — slogan: “always on” — reflects how it has evolved from an online archive of radio stories introduced with a bit of text, to a companion for NPR’s programs, to a freestanding news site with text, photos and multimedia updated throughout the day.

“The biggest challenge was to try to capture the essence of NPR in a brand-new medium, a brand-new platform,” said Keith Jenkins, supervising senior producer for multimedia.

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As the Web site plays a larger role at NPR, it has to balance competing interests: serve audiences who seek different things without spreading itself too thin; offer more text, photos and multimedia without diluting the NPR brand of audio; serve as a destination for the loyal NPR listener without cutting member stations out of the loop.

“There’s often overlap between the coverage we do on the radio and the coverage we do on the Web,” said Darren Mauro, director of user experience delivery for NPR Digital Media. “There’s a synergy between them, but they’re not exactly the same. We’ve thought a lot about, ‘How do we make those complementary to each other?’”

Here’s how people involved with the redesign managed those competing challenges.

A vastly pared-down navigation system highlights NPR’s specialties. The old navigation was a combination of buttons across the top and a long list along the left side — the mark of a site that has outgrown its initial function and vision. The new navigation focuses on three areas: news, arts and life, and music.

More than repackaging the content, Mauro said the navigation helps differentiate the site from other news and information sites by highlighting “the unique content mix that NPR provides on the air and online.”

Local station offerings are highlighted better than on the old site. Users can customize the top of the page by searching for their local station and marking it as a favorite. That places a dropdown menu with links to the station’s audio streams, program schedule and podcasts. The “programs” button opens a list that includes popular shows produced by member stations. Links go straight to the respective pages.

NPR is moving to enable future versions of its site to include more stories from member stations, said Daniel Jacobson, director of application development for NPR Digital Media. As of now, those stories will appear only rarely in the news and arts and life sections. (About a dozen stations provide music-related content on that part of the site, and that won’t change.)

Still, NPR’s push to improve its offerings on the Web and mobile devices could cause some friction with member stations that are worried they will be cut out of the delivery process — and lose donations as people rely on them less, reported Elizabeth Jensen in Sunday’s New York Times.

Audio, NPR’s hallmark, is integrated throughout the site, all marked in some way with teal. Rather than present all audio in a single way — through a standalone player, for instance — the new site choose different approaches. “We have so much audio that it’s hard for us to present it without presenting it in context,” Mauro said.

The result is a variety of active and passive listening experiences.

One of the buttons on the top navigation is “listen.” Clicking it gives the user three options: a 24-hour stream of programming, the latest radio program, and the most recent hourly news summary. A “must hear” audio player on the top right corner offers a short, interesting clip from a program — it’s the audio equivalent of a pull quote on a magazine page.

Throughout the site are links to listen to a story through the media player, which opens in its own window. Users can create a playlist of stories they find interesting and listen to them all at once.

Podcasts have their own home on the navigation bar. Those who want even more control over what they listen to can create their own podcast based on keywords.

The site should do a better job of featuring different types of media, Mauro said, in part the result of a change in the content management system (CMS) that enables video and multimedia to be treated similarly as audio, text and photos. (A Sunday New York Times story, though, noted that the site is not emphasizing video.)

Other changes in the CMS mean photos can be placed as large as producers think is appropriate. Multimedia packages can take up the entire page if necessary. “We may not necessarily have more visuals, but it seems like it because we’re presenting them so much better,” said Jennifer Sharp, design director for NPR Digital Media.

Sharp said designers paid a lot of attention to signaling users as to what kind of content they will get on each page. Pages centered on a topic — those in the arts and life news sections — are set up for reading. Program pages, however, are focused on the listening experience. On the “Morning Edition” page, for example, each story has a “listen” link that opens a separate media player. Users can click on the headline to read the article, and when they do, another link enables them to listen to the story with the pop-up media player.

The Two-Way,” NPR’s news blog, is featured throughout the site. Overall, blogs have a cleaner design and simply look “bloggier,” Sharp said. The blog publishing system and the CMS can trade data, which helps producers place relevant links elsewhere on the site, Mauro said. At some point, bloggers will use the main CMS.

Producers now can change the appearance of pages, from the home page to individual story pages, more easily in order to highlight the best content. They can shift each element of a page — the headline, audio player, text, photo, multimedia modules — and see how the overall package will appear.

Several templates have been set up, but with the new flexibility, two packages based on the same template could look completely different, Sharp said. “So much of the discussion before was, ‘What can we do?’” Mauro said, “And now we have so much flexibility that the question is now, ‘What should we do?’”

Many common tasks have been automated, reducing production time and allowing less technically skilled employees to do more. “There were a lot of things that we wanted to do on the site, whether on a day-to-day or a month-to-month basis that involved a lot of developer effort,” Mauro said. One goal of the changes to the content management system was, “How can we push that work further out into the chain of people working on the site?”

Now designers can do things that developers had to build, and producers can create more complex packages that once required a designer.

Also automated: image production. The increased use of photos in a number of ways meant that employees had to manually produce images several times. Now images are loaded once and can be adjusted with a “magic resizing tool.”

This is one of the first times that NPR developers have practiced “agile software development,” building, testing and rebuilding elements of the site, Mauro said. Working on one-month cycles, the staff identified projects, developed them and then at the end of the month demonstrated what they had, regardless of how far along they were. While the team knew the larger goals, how they’d meet them was not always immediately clear, and the approaches changed over time.

“This method allows us to fail fast so we can get to a better solution in the end instead of following one approach or one direction and finding out at the end that it’s not viable,” Sharp said.

With agile development, Sharp said, the development process is never done. “We got to significant goals, but we have a whole list of things that we would have loved to get into this launch. So, it’s a start.”

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