USA Today website innovates with horizontal experience, information layers

USA Today introduced a new version of its website Saturday, one day after it debuted a new design in print. My overall impression: The new site does not feel like a newspaper website, it feels like a news website. It also feels a bit like an iPad app, with a horizontal experience and visual emphasis. A click feels like a finger swipe. Gannett/USA Today Director of Product Design Bill Thornton said in a tweet, "We think the key is to make the experience more app-like and have fewer hard page refreshes." Still, the site feels like USA Today because it's anchored by images and color. Here are five reasons the reinvention works for me.

1. USA Today's beta site advances the news organization's signature focus on visuals with large images dominating the design.

  • In addition, readers can choose a "cover view" that turns a single image, magazine-style, into a navigational spread.
  • Below the scroll, story navigation is photo-driven, but readers can choose a traditional headline and blurb display if they prefer.
  • Icons drive parts of the navigation.

2. The site creates a horizontal Web experience. A simple graphic arrow moves readers horizontally across "vertical" sections like its well-known Life, Money, Travel and Sports sections. The experience of moving through the sections is smooth and presents just enough information. The seamless flow creates a more continuous reading experience, unlike the abrupt stop and start of headline-driven reading. This design encourages readers to use section fronts as more than a way station between articles.

3. As I scrolled down the homepage or a section front, even a sub-section like the "NFL" coverage, I noticed how the design avoids containerizing content. This makes information easier to absorb and to browse. Instead of a seemingly-infinite scroll that overwhelms my eyes and mind with too much to process, there's a restraint that enables a more relaxed, open reading experience. Instead of feeling limited, confined, cramped by the design, I feel free to read. The news seems manageable.

4. Articles pop up as an overlay, with minimal visual distraction and section context available beneath. There is no need for breadcrumb navigation to return readers to where they were before. There is no "back." The article is a layer of information. Within articles, there are layers, too, with tags, images and a header that references where the story fits in an ongoing narrative. Colors are an important section cue -- established as a core element of the USA Today brand.

5. Finally, but not least, the new design integrates ads effectively. They rotate on section fronts and are well-integrated into story pages. In an interview with Ad Age, new publisher Larry Kramer said, "The new design was driven largely by a desire to give advertisers a new type of digital canvas with which to work."

Other things done well: There's a "USA Today on Twitter" bar on section fronts. Each section also has reporters associated with it, including links to their latest stories. The footer is useful (and also icon-driven), and the staff index is particularly complete and helpful.

USA Today/Gannett worked with digital agency Fi on the website strategy, user experience and design. CEO David Martin said by email, "It's a collaboration ... they are a great client."

The site is still in beta, and there are a few small signs it's a work-in-progress, but so is the news organization, which Kramer joined in May. Though it remains the country's second largest paper, its print circulation is declining, based on the latest Audit Bureau figures. And owner Gannett faces ongoing challenges. None of that diminishes the importance of this digital re-envisioning. In fact, it may elevate its importance in this time of transition for journalism.

USA Today's current website, shown above, will be replaced by USA Today's new one, following a similar print redesign.
The website's new homepage, seen on its beta site, is visually driven. (Click here for full page view.) Arrows at the left and right create a horizontal Web experience, moving readers between sections and stories.
Each section contains easy-to-navigate subsections. For example, the Sports subsections -- NFL, NASCAR, and so on -- include scores and schedules.
Article pages overlay sections, with story highlights and ads well-integrated. The overlay allows readers to seamlessly return to previous browsing.
Though the new USA Today website feels like an iPad app, with its horizontal navigation and emphasis on visuals, the new USA Today iPad app feels more like a newspaper.


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