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James Royal-Lawson

newspapers

Lokaltidningen mitt i: minimising the user experience

I think pretty much everyone has an opinion about how the news industry should adapt in order to survive in the digital age. Even I’ve turned out a few blog posts on the subject.

Middle of nowhere

Local newspaper company Mitt i Stockholm publishes 31 newspapers here in the Greater Stockholm area and they have a rather peculiar puzzling terrible digital strategy which manages to minimise the user experience for a huge section of their target audience.

In this blog post I’ll walk you through a few parts of their digital presence and highlight some of the problems. I’ll also, in the spirit of free local newspapers, offer Mitt i some free advice.

Mitt i advert for their app on the Stockholm metro

Download our app!

In recent weeks Mitt i Stockholm has been pushing their recently launched mobile app fairly hard. There have been adverts in every Metro train, full page adverts in their own publications, plus other places, all enticing people to install the Mitt i app. The app promises you “piping hot news about everything to do with the capital city”,

I don’t think they thought things through from a reader perspective at all. I’m also not convinced that this idea has been built on clear business goals either.

What’s in it for me?

The adverts on the Metro system, and the full page adverts in all the editions of the printed newspaper give very little information. The app for iPhone and Android (but not iPad) claims to deliver a “unique news service about Stockholm” but fails to give any specific details.

Searching for “mitt i” and installing the app was pretty painless. Although reading the poor reviews didn’t give me high expectations. On Android it would appear the app didn’t work at all with the latest version of the operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. It worked for me, usually. It did though crash and close itself on a number of occasions.

Everything needs to be tested and tested well. Use vistor data from your web site to help prioritise the devices and platforms you test. Make sure you keep an eye on reviews and comments to your newly launched app and make sure you’re ready to fix any bugs and quickly release an updated version.

Given that Mitt i is produced in 31 local variations, it was immediately puzzling that the app lacked any way of choosing my edition. You see news articles from all 31 editions of the newspaper. It may be harsh, but I don’t want local news from Lidingö, I want it from Enskede.

An article in the app comprises of a picture, a headline and body text. The only additional feature are buttons to increase and decrease the text size and next/previous article buttons. There are no links, and most significantly, no ability to share the article whatsoever.

The article is totally locked within the app. There’s no way of recommending it, or passing it on to a friend. Not even the familiar Android “share” menu appears. There’s no way an article could become viral, or be used in order to acquire more readers for the newspaper.

Make sure your content can be easily shared. Make use of standard share functions. Test sharing your content on relevant social networks to make sure it displays as you’d expect.

One of the features (not mentioned in the marketing for the app) is their restaurant guide with map and (editorial) reviews. There is, of course, no possibility to add your own comment or rating, or even to add a new review. Hardly a unique selling point for the app. Much better similar services exist.

Screenshot of the in-app map showing the locations of restaurants that have been reviewed

If the restaurant reviews are strategically important and must be included in the app, then why not enhance them with information and content from other services, such as Allakartor. Allakartor makes its data available via an API, making it relatively straight forward to include.

Website lacks content

The lack of any sharing in the app starts to become a little more understandable (but no more forgivable!) when you take a look at the Mitt i website. The content from the various newspapers is only available as e-zines. That is to say, a flash or image-based presentation of the content built from a PDF version of the newspaper.

It’s difficult to make content any less accessible then is achieved by publishing it in this way. Viewing this type of e-zine on tablets or mobile devices is hopeless. It also not very search engine friendly – and by that I mean not only unfriendly for Google but also for on-site search and the visitor. Searching the archive on Mitt i rarely gives a satisfactory result.

In addition, no article has its own URL. You can’t share a link to a particular story. The best you can do is link to a whole page from the paper . This is something I managed to do, but I suspect not something very many typical readers would achieve.

Avoid using ezine publications. They rarely deliver good user experiences. Make the PDF available as a download. Publish content in it’s own right on dedicated, shareable, pages.

What no start page?

As part of the campaign to promote the app, Mitt i has moved their normal start page and replaced it with a splash page. Splash pages are known to irritate users. A certain percentage will leave immediately on seeing a splash page.

Screenshot of a replacement start page for mitti.se advertising their app

Determined users will click on the “enter site” link as quick as possible in order to get on with the task they came to the site to complete. Trying to distracting visitors as soon as they arrive is rarely a good plan.

The splash page itself is poorly constructed, with almost the entire content of the page contained in an image with no textual alternative. The links to the Android and Apple apps are made created using an image map, something that most of us avoid like the plague these days.

If you do deploy a splash page (which I wouldn’t recommend) then place it on its own URL. Redirect your index page temporarily to your splash page with a http 302 temporary redirect code. You may also want to make it no index. Take care to code the page correctly, making it as accessible as possible.

Search Engines

Splash pages are not only terrible for visitors, but also for search engines. Removing almost all the text-based content from a web page results in a very poor quality snippet. The title of Mitt i in Google at the moment is “Mitt i app” with a description of “to the mitt i homepage”. Hardly enticing.

Screenshot of Google search results showing how badly mitti.se appears

The Mitt i web site fails to follow even the most basic SEO advice such as unique page titles and quality meta descriptions. Mitt i search results take a further hit due to the amount of content only available as PDFs or as images. As mentioned earlier, none of the articles from the newspapers are available as specific web pages.

Make sure articles are published as web pages with their own distinct URLs. Make sure page titles are descriptive, unique and contain relevant keywords. Make sure a well written meta description is included on every single page.

Frustratingly poor

There is demand and interest for local news, and thousands of people take the time to read the paper editions of Mitt i. It’s frustrating how poor the digital strategy is for this local newspaper – they have the content, it just needs to be better utilised.

Rival free local newspaper company Direct Press does a much better job with their web presence. It’s not perfect, but at least the content from their publications is available online in a way which is accessible, shareable and findable.

It’s important to think holistically. Consider how every thing you do (both online and offline) fits together; how it is seen, consumed and interacted with by your customers (readers, members, supporters, or whatever you’d like to label them as).

With the revenue obtained from advertising in (printed) free local papers such as Mitt i in terminal decline, minimising the user experience of their readers is hardly a strategy that will help them innovate and survive.


James Royal-Lawson+ is a digital strategist and web manager based in Stockholm Sweden.

Add sharing to printed newspapers with QR codes

QR codes aren’t all about campaigns and coupons. They can quite easily be used to add value and to help customers/readers/visitors do what they’d like to to. I’m going to give you an example of how they can help improve sharing of printed articles.

Despite the looming figure of Death hanging over their shoulders, traditional printed newspapers are long from their EOL. That said, the way in which we consume media is developing all the time. I read most content digitally, through a web browser (on my laptop and my tablet) or via an app (on my tablet).

I regularly share the links to content I consume, often adding my own little comment and opinion. The channels I use to share are varied, but mainly Twitter, Facebook and Yammer – and myself (somethings have to be saved to be read later – there are only so many hours in the day!)

The Economist

Despite my digital life, I still have a fondness for printed newspapers and magazines. That said, the number of publications I subscribe to has reduced dramatically over recent years, but one that has remained is The Economist. I enjoy it’s stability and consistency. A 15 year-old James wouldn’t be shocked at how the present-day Economist of 38 year-old James looks.

What is frustrating is that I still have the same urge to share when I’m reading the paper version as I do when reading articles digitally.

This is where QR codes could add real value for me.

Printed share buttons

So why not add share buttons to printed articles? Okay, it’s obviously not possible to put actual sharing tools in printed paper, but it is possible to print a scannable barcode alongside the article.

Rather than have direct link to the digital version of the article encode in the code, why not take one step further in helping the reader and provide a link to a ready made sharing page?

I’ve taken the Wikipedia page for How to win friends and influence people and made it into an example document. In the footer of each page I’ve placed a QR Code. This code links to a simple share-page that I’ve made. (It would be sensible to include some indications of what the QR code does when scanned – I’ll update the example document later to include that.)

(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();

The share page

Scanning the barcode takes you to a share page that shows the article title and then offers a number of easy to press links enabling you to share the article on Twitter, Facebook or via email. Or if you fancy – you can even be a little crazy and open up the actual web page.

Screenshot of the share page taken on an Android tablet

Increasing sharing

If The Economist printed a little QR code at the end of each article, I’d share plenty more articles with my friends and followers than I currently do.

If you produce a printed publication, why not try it out? My share page is just a simple example, but it would be relatively easy (and low-cost) to produce a branded, slightly more advanced, version. Producing the QR codes is straight forward, and even possible to automate.

Let me know how you get on!


is a freelance web manager and strategist based in Stockholm Sweden.

What use is a newspaper?

It’s not like we needed any more proof that the newspaper industry is filled with problems and struggling to adapt, reinvent, and revive itself – but yesterday’s explosions in the centre of Stockholm have given us another example.

This picture accompanying this blog post shows two screenshots from this morning side by side.

Print edition

The left most screenshot is of page 10 of Dagens Nyheter. The paper and PDF edition (bought from PressDisplay using my Android Tablet) of Dagens Nyheter contains just two pages of content about the explosions – including a large picture on the front cover. The article on page 10 I’d already read online yesterday evening in the hours after the news broke.

Online

The right most screenshot is Dagens Nyheter’s website. 6 articles, 1 collection of images and a video-clip. A number of the articles were published yesterday evening, before the print/PDF edition of the paper appeared.

As useless as you can get

Coverage of current events and the “traditional” newspaper format and “traditional” way of publshing are about as useless as you can get these days. Paywalls and subscription models aren’t going to help there.

Page load times and big fat Swedish newspapers

Many major newspapers have notoriously very bulky websites. In fact, they are generally some of the most overweight and unhealthy sites on the internet.

Load time matters

Why is this a bad thing? Well, mainly slower loading times. People have very little patience for things to happen online. When combined with a 3G mobile broadband internet connection loading times take a further hit. If testing the patience of your visitors wasn’t enough, Google has even started taking page load times into account in their search results. You could even argue that larger pages have a larger carbon footprint due to the due to increased CPU usage!

The test

Let’s take a closer look at the major Swedish newspapers. Over a period of two weeks I tested Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet, Sydsvenskan and Göteborgs Posten.

Using the Firebug add-on to Firefox I recorded how long it took for the start page of each newspaper to load. Each time I used the same computer, in the same place, connected to the internet via the same 3G mobile internet provider. Before loading the page I emptied the cache of Firefox to ensure that all elements of the page were required to be downloaded.

The results

The websites of all of the Swedish newspapers tested generally weighed more than 2MB and took between 20-35 seconds to load (uncached) over a 3G wireless network. Alexia classes all the newspapers tested as “very slow” and groups them in the slowest 10% of websites on the internet

Graph average page load time swedish newspapers april 2010

The slowest of the websites was Aftonbladet. On some occasions it was very slow (and has the honour of being the only site to ever take more than 40 seconds to fully load) and was also the website that most often caused the fan on my laptop to speed up considerably as it battled to cool the processor down due to the amount of flash video being displayed simultaneously and continuously.

Graph average page sizes swedish newspapers april 2010

An interesting observation was that when reloading pages the majority of the content was, of course, cached (with the exception of Aftonbladet which managed to serve up almost 50% new content) but the load time remained almost the same. This was largely down to the sheer volume of requests made to build up the page. In the case of Aftonbladet, it’s start page is normally comprised of over 300 requests.

During the first week of testing, Sydsvenskan was by far the heaviest of the websites. In the above graphs I have only included Sydsvenskan’s figures from the first week of testing due to the significantly different results during the second week.

New Sydsvenskan

During the second week of testing Sydsvenskan released a new version of their website. Initially I thought this would be a bad thing for my testing, but it quickly became apparent that page size and loading time had been a specific consideration when building their new site. So instead of disrupting my testing, it give me an opportunity to see what difference optimising a size for speed could make.

The results were impressive. Sydsvenskan is now the lightest of the Swedish newspapers by a considerable margin. It weighs in at just 43% of the size of Aftonbladet (the fattest and slowest of those tested) and loads twice as fast.

Graph page load time sydsvenskan april 2010

Above the fold content

Also during the second week I also recorded the time it takes for content above the fold to appear, as in reality we don’t wait until every single part of the page has loaded before we start scanning the page and reading content. During this test, I stopped the timer as soon as the leading story’s headline was visible (even though at times adverts and some other content were already visible). This test showed that the lighter newspapers displayed above the fold content three times as fast as the heavier ones. Dagens Nyheter was an exception here and manage to join the thin boys despite it’s unhealthy BMI.

Graph page load time above fold swedish newspapers april 2010

30 seconds? Goodbye!

Generally people appear to have more patience for newspaper sites than e-commerce sites. If clicking on “confirm purchase” on your site took 30 seconds you’d be losing a lot of sales, but on a newspaper people evidently wait for the content to load (or more likely start reading text content above the fold long before everything else on the page has loaded).

Flash based adverts

A large part of the bloat on Swedish newspapers’ web sites is advertising and in particular flash-based advertising, The worst offenders are “video” adverts that play automatically when the page loads.

Lighter is better

With lighter, faster, more responsive pages, the newspapers would reduce bandwidth costs, increase the number of page views, and ultimately give their readers an overall better experience. But given the seemingly never ending focus newspapers’ place on making advertisers happy rather than their readers I doubt the (global) trend for heavy bloated online news sites is going to end soon.

Perhaps Sydsvenskan can be the catalyst for change? Well, perhaps it can be here in Sweden.

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