Q&A: Omaha World-Herald designer on Omaha.com redesign
Omaha.com, the website of the Omaha World-Herald, launched a redesign late Monday evening.
Today marks the launch of the Omaha World-Herald's redesigned website, which has been in the works for about a year, according to online team leader Ben Vankat. We conducted an email interview on Wednesday with Vankat (left) about how the new site came to be, challenges presented by the redesign and how it will incorporate DataOmaha.com, a World-Herald project we've covered since its launch in 2010.
Silicon Prairie News: How long has the new design been in the works?
Ben Vankat: We organized a committee last summer to discuss plans for the redesign and write up a list of "must have" improvements and goals. Once we identified a top ten list of features and changes, there was a round of discussions with editors and reporters in the newsroom to see how those goals would make their way into the templates. I think the first official sketches and prototypes made it onto paper in November and I probably handed it off to the developers in March or April. After a few rounds of tweaks and revisions, here we are, launch day.
SPN: You designed the new version of Omaha.com. How did it come to fruition? Who gave input on what the new design should include, and what were some of those specifics?
BV: Two things. First, the way news is consumed and produced has changed since our last redesign (in 2009). People are coming to us more through social media and other outside links now, which makes it important to highlight additional content that can keep someone around once they finish that initial article. Increasing the "stickiness" of our pages was important. We didn't have any blogs three years ago. Very few of us were on Twitter. These types of obvious additions had to be worked into the design. We're also shooting a lot more video these days and including more online extras – photo galleries, infographics, databases, etc. – and we needed pages that could better accommodate all of ways we're telling stories.
Second, styles and tastes and trends change. The design and structure of a site really should be adapting as often as possible to meet the needs of the readers. From the minute a new project launches, I'm constantly thinking about the flaws and ways it can be improved. You see how people are using the site and get feedback about what works and what doesn't. And you don't want it to get stale. This redesign has been formally in motion for almost a year, but before that I'm sure we can trace napkin drawings and lists of necessary tweaks all the way back to the day the last redesign launched. It's an ongoing process. And it starts all over again today, which is both great and terrifying.
SPN: Any specific challenges presented by the redesign?
BV: It's a daunting task to change something very familiar to a lot of people. An idea as simple as moving our "Most Popular" stories list to the other side of the page alters the way thousands of people use the site. For that reason, changing EVERYTHING is just out of the question. So you have to balance that need for familiarity with the hope that making certain changes really will make the site better for people. When I was stumped by any particular question, I found myself going back to the words "just make it better."
SPN: What's the best part about the new website?
BV: I like the new article pages a lot (above, right). The photos are bigger. The headlines are bigger. The text is bigger. The spacing is better.
Without getting too nerdy going into the details of WHY these things matter, I'll just say I think the experience of reading a story on any website can be improved immensely with simple tweaks to the size, shape and structure of the elements on the page. Especially on a news website, where so much of the content is text-driven, attention to detail is critical. Even a simple switch from a colored background to a white background or increasing the space between paragraphs (both of which you'll notice on the new site) makes a big difference.
SPN: Anything new or cutting edge about the design? ("New and cutting edge" for the realm of online news.)
BV: We're not breaking much new ground with the redesign, but it's not like we set out to completely reinvent the news website. On the most basic level, our intent was to improve the reader experience. As much as I would love to be announcing a switch to 3D news holograms that get beamed directly into your brain (or even responsive-design templates), for now I think we're happy with where we came out. We wanted a website where everything was easier to find, where reader voices played a much bigger role (we're making the switch to Facebook comments!), and where getting a complete roundup of the day's news and events was as easy as, well, opening up a newspaper.
SPN: How is Data Omaha included in the new website, if at all?
BV: Dataomaha.com – our home for database projects like Curbwise and the restaurant health inspections map, among others – is a good example of how the redesign addresses our needs AND improves the site for
readers. The redesign fixes plenty of easy, obvious stuff. It simplifies the process of posting one of our projects to the top spot on the home page and gives us better ways to highlight projects on the site for extended periods of time. That added visibility benefits the reader.
But it helps us, too. Reporters from around the newsroom see these ideas getting more prominent play on the site, and they think of the ways their own work could be enhanced with data or some other presentation beyond the typical story-headline-photo structure. All of the sudden, you've got lots more people interested and lots of
creative ideas vying to be the next project out of the gate.
Credits: Photo of Ben Vankat courtesy of Ben Vankat. Screenshots from Omaha.com.