The idea of redesigning websites is nothing new. As technology changes, many companies find an endless well of ideas to implement onto their websites. In the early 2000s, car dealerships were just beginning to make their presence known on the internet, rapidly pushing to the point they could make a car sale online. At first, the technology was simple: Show a listing of the cars by categorizing them first by new, used, or certified, then by year, make and model.
Once a customer found the car they liked, he or she would be presented with several forms to fill out to get more information. The forms included one that notified the dealer they were interested in the car, setting up a test drive, evaluating their trade in and getting pre-approved for financing.
Then, companies started to come up with additional products to pitch to car dealers. Some involved pop-ups of talking heads – mainly women to attract men – welcoming the person to the site and to click their head if they have any questions. Other products included full finance applications. Flash was introduced, and dealers loved the way it looked, but getting a flash site to appear on a Google search was damn near impossible, so they moved onto sites consisting of java script and newer versions of HTML that allowed the dealers to present information like a flash site, but better.
Around the same time that car dealers were learning to use the web to sell cars, many newspapers sat back and held onto hope that the old way of presenting news through print would remain the most dominant, but they were wrong.
Several newspapers on the East End of Long Island rushed to have websites created to present their news on. Many still focused on print as the main medium while others began to take a digital first approach, that allowed reporters to post stories to the web quickly, update them on an as-needed basis, and mold them into a print version within 7 days, but with a fresh take on the story.
RiverheadLocal.com is one publication out of 12 that cover the East End of Long Island exclusively. The last time Riverhead Local updated their site was in 2010, according to the time stamp on the website.
While other publications like Riverhead News Review and the Southampton Press have upgraded their sites to include photo carousels and better ad placement, Riverhead Local continues to present the news in a dated way.
When it comes to sites, the term “above the fold” refers to stories and content that appears on the screen without scrolling. The term dates to full sheet newspapers folded in half, and the content that appears in the upper half of the sheet is above the fold.
When Riverhead Local presents the news, the only content above the fold are three horizontal navigation bars, a way to support the publication, a difficult to find search icon, an advertisement banner and one story. Nothing catches the eye of the visitor to stick around and news is difficult to find.
The site is dated – if that has not been made clear – which is why the site was a good candidate for a redesign. To make a pitch with evidence that the site was dated, more research needed to be done, including community outreach.
According to Kathy Baxter’s book, “Understanding Your Users,” surveys are a great way to reach masses of people when compared to other methods of conducting research.
For this reason, a survey was developed to reach out to the residents of the towns of Riverhead and Southold, which RiverheadLocal.com serves.
The survey starts out by asking demographic information like age, location, and education level, then goes into questions about computer savviness and how they get their news online. After those questions, the survey sought specific information about the participant’s use of RiverheadLocal.com and social media.
“The unfortunate reality of surveys is that not everyone is going to respond and those that do choose to respond may be systematically different from those who do not (Baxter, 268),” Baxter said in her book. “A survey is different from the other activities described in this book because – unless it is a part of another activity – you are typically not present as the survey is completed. As a result, there is no moderator, no notetaker, no videographer, etc. The players are your participants, but now, we will refer to them as respondents (Baxter, 270).)
Surveys can be the start of the research, but more should be done to find out what the public really things about a site, how it uses the site and what can be improved.
Conducting interviews is one method that can be used to get solid information on how a site can be improved.
A guide put together by Michigan State University states that people will answer questions posed of them if asked (MSU).
“If they agree to be interviewed, they will continue to try to be helpful by offering whatever they can about your topic, even if it means inventing answers or exaggerating how much they have thought about your question,” the guide read.
This poses a problem, though. While the face-to-face interaction is great because it can be recorded and gone back to for review and tracking, the pressure put on a person to answer is real.
The guide brings up four facts about interviews: Research questions are not the same as interview questions, people’s espoused theories differ from their theories in use, interviews are social occasions, and testimony by itself is a relatively weak form of evidence.
This said, it was still important to conduct interviews to get more in-depth answers.
The interview avoided closed-ended questions, and instead focused on open-ended questions about the site itself. It aimed to find out how the RiverheadLocal.com site could be improved so that the community could be informed of news and events.
Questions about how often the participant visited the site and the types of stories they read were asked, along with ratings of importance when it comes to sharing stories on social media.
Another method used to get community feedback was through a card sorting exercise that was conducted online because of “stay-at-home orders.”
This method aimed to find out the best way to organize the top navigation bar. Currently RiverheadLocal.com has three top navigation bars, though one is being used exclusively for COVID-19 coverage. The other two bars had similar items, and the goal was to consolidate them into one.
Participants were asked to organize a group of categories from most important to least important, then separate another group of cards under the categories. Overall, the cards were sorted very similarly among the users. A couple of cards wound up being confusing – sales and police blotter – and while sales was renamed “Real Estate Sales,” blotter was removed because DWIs and Arrests encompassed what is in the blotter.
Baxter said, “Card sorts are often used to generate an information architecture…A good architecture helps users find information or items and accomplish their tasks with ease.”
Overall, the exercise was effective because it did just what Baxter said. If it were to be done again, card sorting could also be used to help create a layout of elements on the homepage.
Diary Studies allow participants to be part of the study over time.
For the RiverheadLocal.com redesign, a diary study conducted with 15 participants at a time sought participation over electronic devices like phones and email.
For 30 days, the 15 participants were texted a set of eight questions to their phones. The time varied by day and required the participants to stop what they were doing and go to the website, then answer the questions.
Those questions included how they accessed the site, what the first story was that caught their eye, if the story was shared on social media, if any other links were clicked, if any other stories were shared, and then what advertisements caught their eyes.
Originally the study was going to have the participants answer the questions three times a day, but that may have been overwhelming to some. The other thing that the study did was offer incentive to participate. For every three responses in a row, the participant was offered a $5 gift card to Starbucks, and if they completed the entire study, they would be given a $50 gift card to the coffee franchise.
At the end of the study, a lot of information would have to be combed through for trends, but once sorted out, several trends could be acknowledged and applied to the redesign.
The final method used to get feedback on the RiverheadLocal.com redesign was a usability study. The study had three participants complete five tasks. As they completed the tasks, the participants were timed. The participants were also asked to speak their thoughts out loud, so the people watching the study take place could take notes.
The study discovered that there was some redundancy on the site as well as clutter. The study also found that even though some participants took longer than others to complete the tasks, the site is functional; it is just dated.
Even though the site is dated, the consensus of all the studies was that it is time to update the RiverheadLocal.com website. Many surrounding publications display several stories above the fold by way of a carousel and list of story headlines. Another feature that is needed on RiverheadLocal.com is a breaking news bar and a search box. The site currently has a small magnifying glass that could be missed easily.
Two participants initially said the site was easy to navigate, but when shown the Southampton Press website and Riverhead Times Review, the participants said RiverheadLocal.com could be improved.
And the changes would not be much. As mentioned above, a search box and breaking news bar would help, but so would the ability to display more stories above the fold, the elimination of one top navigation bar and better implementation of advertisements so they do not feel and appear tacky.
In the end, the goal is to keep readers on the site and try to prevent them from leaving to one of the other 11 sites on the East End that provide news coverage in the area.
Baxter, Kathy. Understanding Your Users (Interactive Technologies) (p. 249). Elsevier Science. Kindle Edition.
Interview Guides. (2020). Retrieved 9 May 2020, from https://msu.edu/user/mkennedy/digitaladvisor/Research/interviewing.htm