Developing a Feel for New Media Design

By | October 12, 2001

By Matthew Stanton, Metromemetics
(first posted 10/12/2001; revised 01/05/2002)

Many “old media” professionals are having a hard time transitioning to the “new media” market. In some cases, the new media threatens the old media.

Consider newspapers: Classified adverting sales have been trashed by users flocking to for job listings and for the universe’s biggest rummage sale. (Online car and home Web sites have been less effective in taking sales away from newspapers.)

Broadcasters did not feel the pinch of losing much audience share to “new media” in the 1990s, but the merger of AOL and Time Warner – along with the reality of mass market broadband access – will revolutionize broadcast business models. Wired (wealthy) consumers will be targeted by bigger ticket advertisers (financial services, homes, cars). As we will see later in this course, the Internet has had a bigger impact in hurting television ratings than newspaper circulations.

On the other hand, some “threats” proved to be paper tigers: In the 1980s, some theater owners feared VCRs spelled the end to showing films on the big screen. Home video did indeed change the nature of the movie business, but people still flock to pay big money on weekends to see the latest blockbusters. While smaller productions may have been pushed off the public’s big screens, direct-to-video is very profitable and has offered thousands of documentary and short film producers a chance for distribution which would have been impossible in the old style industry.

Some people projected online shopping would kill in-store (“brick-and-mortar”) retail shopping. That trend did happen for software sales, but the “dot-com deadpool” craze of 2000 shows the consumer market isn’t ready to support a 100% ecommerce society. Not enough people wanted to buy clothes, flowers, pet sweaters or groceries from the Web. However, “click-and-mortar” operations which unite online shopping with traditional retail services have proved to work well… so far.

Finally, not every new innovation is going to be winner. A maxim of new media: Beware the Next Big Thing.

In 1997, push-media through content channels a la PointCast was supposed to replace the Web. It didn’t. Years earlier, newspaper editors were excited about AudioText, a service in the 1980s by which people could call up and listen to newspaper stories being read on-demand over the telephone. The idea bombed. In 2001, a company called Digital Convergence is making a push to tie together bar codes in print publications, audio tones in broadcasts and sites on the World Wide Web. Whether or not the free plastic “cat” scanners catch on remains to be seen.

Design for user experience, not content

Both newspaper designers and broadcast editors typically look at the content they are putting out in terms of how that content is presented to its audience. Such media is passive and linear – the audience starts at a beginning and reads or watches through to the end.

New media, especially the Web, is neither passive nor linear. Users not only choose a source of information online but also shape how that information grows based on what links are followed and in what order those links are followed. Part of the price for this user empowerment becomes design anarchy where content producers quickly lose control over what they are trying to say. Should editors only link to content they control or give users access to related outside information which may also be valuable?

Interactivity also sets the Web apart from other media. Newspapers and magazines look at daily newsstand or weekly subscription rates to measure how well a print product is being received. Radio and television broadcasters rely on audience sampling, ratings and percentage of market share – all of which are usually hours or days old by the time such data is reported.

But on the Web, an online editor can start tracking user traffic not just to a site’s homepage but to a specific story the second an update is posted. Online forms and e-mail allow users to respond directly and immediately to an editor, and online forums and newsgroups allow non-professionals to essentially publish their responses to editors’ and reporters’ decisions for all the world to see right away. It’s like call-in talk radio where everyone is speaking at once.

Consider the flexibility of the medium. Except for zoned editions, everyone who buys a newspaper is going to see the same thing: a few dozen broadsheets of inky text, grainy photos and ads. Radio and TV stations each broadcast just one signal and the receiving sets – the radios and televisions themselves – are all built to receive those signals the same for all sets.

However, to get a Web page, users must rely on inconsistent technology. Office workers on a high-speed network might get Web pages to load almost instantly while dial-up modem users have to wait (and wait and wait) for a site to respond. Once a page does get through, every version of every Web browser of every type of computer platform will interpret the code markup for that page slightly differently.

And then there’s the monitor problem. Some users see hundreds of colors, others millions. A user with a 600×480-size screen will see only two-thirds of what a user with an 800×600-size screen sees, and that missing one-third can be critical to the message the content provider wanted to deliver. And in worst case scenarios where users try to the Web on PDAs or cell phones, a Web page’s presentation is ruined.

In addition to these technical limitations is the impact of open competition. In many cities there is only one major metro daily newspaper; thus people can say “Did you see what was on the front page of the paper this morning?” and expect others to know what they mean. There are four major broadcast television networks and, in any given city, about 45 on-air radio stations. Cable and satellite television boost a user’s options to upwards of about 200 channels.

But on the Web, every user has millions of options – all equally available with three or less mouseclicks at all times of the day and night. (One click search, second click results, third click content.)

Unlike old media, the Web is global, free and immediate. It was designed to be consumed as much as possible, as quickly as possible, by as many people as possible. The attention span of Web users is a fraction that of other media users.

In one minute a user can quickly look at a dozen Web pages from all around the world with no need to go back to a newsstand for another issue. Consumption descisions are made not daily, not hourly, but in seconds. Any rival Web site is always one click away.

Regardless of marketing niche, target audience or strength of brand, in truth every commercial Web site is constantly competing against every other Web site on the planet in order to serve content – both editorial and advertising – to a very fickle audience.

Because of these differences, new media professionals focus not so much on presenting content but rather on designing a user experience. How quickly does a user find what they are looking for? Can the user find the same or better information faster or easier somewhere else? Is relevant related content packaged appropriately? These are the designer’s mission-critical questions.