What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web

Since I already drilled a nerve with What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About The Web, which is on its way to becoming one of my most linked posts ever — and since everyone loves a sequel — I thought I would do a follow up for magazines. The lessons, of course, apply to every print publisher, who constantly discovers new ways to frustrate web users by prioritizing print over web.

This time I’m going to pick on The Atlantic, which like the Washington Post is a publication I have a great deal of affection for (published by my former employer Atlantic Media), so this is not a general critique but rather a very specific example representative of a much larger industry-wide problem (i.e. I could find instances of the same problem on virtually any magazine website).

It started this past Saturday when a friend (also a former Atlantic employee) emailed me asking me why I hadn’t mentioned my quote in the Atlantic’s latest cover story by Nick Carr. I responded saying I had no idea I had been quoted.

I immediately when to TheAtlantic.com, where I discovered that the current issue was still the June issue, and that the July issue with Nick’s cover story still hadn’t been posted. This is a common practice among publishers who make early receipt of the new issue a benefit for print subscribers.

But by doing that the publisher basically thumbs their nose at web readers and violates a fundamental principle of the digital age — if a user knows your content exists, but can’t access it, the result will be frustration or worse.

The Atlantic already made a brave move by following NYTimes.com and removing their paid subscriber wall on the website.

But still in this instance the print subscriber had access to content that, despite the power of the web, I couldn’t access.

To make matter worse, I stopped by Borders on Sunday to see if they had the July issue — physically driving to a location to obtain content that already existed in digital form seemed ludicrous. But I was willing to pay for the print issue (and probably would have read more than Nick’s article once I had it in hand).

Sadly, on the rack I found the June issue, just like on the website.

I joked to my friend by email about the frustrations of being unable to access content in the digital age. He offered to fax over the article… or 8-track tape it.

So I resigned myself to waiting for it to go up online, which I knew it would shortly.

This afternoon, I saw on TechMeme a link to this CNET story about the Atlantic article. Great, I thought, it’s up online.

It’s not yet on the Web, but the July issue of The Atlantic has an exceptional and provocative article by Nick Carr, asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Being a web user on a mission, as most are, I didn’t bother to read the sentence — I just clicked on the link and found the same June issue.

This is ridiculous, I thought — here is a someone who has access to the article and wants to link to it, but can’t. And here I am, a consumer eager to read the article, and I can’t. Wall-to-wall frustration.

But guess who stepped in to save the day… can you guess?

This afternoon, I received a email from the Google alert ego feed for my name:

Google Alert Atlantic

Another print publisher trumped by Google.

But it gets even worse.

I clicked on the link in the email which took me to the article, which is in fact online. Actually, the whole July/August issue is online.

It’s not linked on TheAtlantic.com homepage yet, as of this writing — and it’s not on the current issue page.

Atlantic June 2008

But Google knows it’s there. Google knows everything. And most importantly, Google gives me what I want, even when print publishers, still trying to balance demands of two entirely different modes of publishing, choose to prioritize print over web.

The web is Google’s first and only priority. That’s why they are beating the pants off of every legacy media company on the web.

But wait, there’s more.

I found the section of the article where I was quoted, unbeknown to me, because Nick lifted it from one of my blog post. In fact, it’s in a section about bloggers who have commented on the issue at hand.

But there’s no links to those posts. So readers have no opportunity to see my quote in context, which was a post called The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought.

There are other links in the online version, so additional links may be added before it goes live. But most print publishers have no editorial process in place for converting print content to web content, e.g. putting in links, which leads invariably to a frustrating web user experience.

If publishers want to maximize value on the web, they have to put the web first every time — that means you can’t just take what you create for print and dump it on the web, regardless of the cost efficiencies, because you’re destroying value for web users.

If a user can’t find what they want going straight to your site, the next time they are going to go straight to Google — and Google will capture the value of that content distribution.

But this story has one last delicious drip of irony. Nick agues in the Atlantic article, with his usual brilliance, that Google and digital media is actually changing the way we think — to our detriment.

I agree with Nick that the way we think is likely changing, which is what my post was about. But I don’t know that I agree with Nick’s pessimism that the change is for the worse. Yet the way I’m quote in the article, it leaves open the possibility that I agree with Nick that the change is negative.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

But if you read my whole post, you’d find the following:

What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.

If anything is making us dumber, it’s that we’re betwixt and between old modes and new modes of both information and thought.

The irony of The Atlantic’s print article is that by bounding the reader into a box where they can’t seek more context, and worse, by being the antithesis of the digital media experience that Nick describes, it becomes irrelevant to its own thesis.

Fortunately, if you take my quote from the print article and put it into Google, you can find my post — and the missing context.

I’d say in this instance, Google actually made me smarter.

If publishers followed Google’s example, they’d be smarter, too.

UPDATE

Lot’s of people are now discussing Nick’s article — although mostly they are discussing the CNET post ABOUT the article, because the article itself is not online — I’m guess Matt Asay is a print subscriber, who couldn’t wait for the article to get up on the web to start talking about it.

Atlantic Techmeme

It’s great to give print subscribers an advance look at the magazine — except those subscribers have blogs, and they don’t really want to keep with the print-centric program. They want to talk about it NOW, not when it finally shows up on the web. Matt even scanned in the brilliant cover:
Atlantic July August 2008 Cover

UPDATE #2

You can find all of The Atlantic’s July/August 2008 issue content indexed by Google News here, which is how I got the Google alert.

You can embargo the newsstand, but you can’t embargo Google, which is the new newsstand.

If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design

On the web, in the age of Google, design has no margin of error, and there are no stupid users, only inadequate designs. Those were the main points of my critique of newspaper websites generally, and WashingtonPost.com in particular, which to be fair, apply to all online publishers, and really any website. I’m writing another post on this same topic because the issue is so fundamental to the future of media, news, publishing, and journalism, that it really can’t be over-emphasized or over-clarified.

In print, a design flaw is unlikely to cause a reader to abandon a newspaper or magazine entirely — they are a largely captive audience. But it will cause them to abandon a website.

Google understands this better than any web company, which is why they are the most successful. Google is obsessed with making sure its users never fail, no matter how “stupid” they are. Google makes users feel smart. That’s why they keep coming back.

Invariably, when I write about a negative experience with a website, e.g. Twitter or WashingtonPost.com, someone puts forth what I call the “stupid user” argument — essentially, I failed because I’m a stupid user. And if I were a better user, I would have been more successful with the site.

For example, I discovered that WashingtonPost.com has a local version of its homepage, which it displays to logged in users. Creating different versions of a site for different users is web-savvy. If I had been logged in, I would have found the content I was looking for on the homepage. That’s all good, and much to their credit.

Unfortunately, I never log in to WashingtonPost.com, although I read it frequently. Therefore, the “stupid user” argument goes, the failure to find the content I wanted was my fault.

Here’s the problem — my failure to find the information I wanted is not MY problem, because I went to Google and found it. I succeeded. The failure is the site’s problem, because I abandoned it and went instead to a site that would help me succeed without having to be smarter.

WashingtonPost.com and, to be fair, most other sites that require registration assume that users will register to help the site achieve its goals, whether customizing content or targeting advertising.

But users don’t care about the site’s goals. They care about THEIR OWN goals.

Nowhere on WashingtonPost.com’s homepage do I see clear a message that registering or logging in will help me achieve MY goals. There’s a link to the Washington version of the homepage in the upper right corner, which has the best of intentions, but because I didn’t find it, it might as well not exist.

This is why Google rules the web. In Google’s world, the user is always right. Google knows that if users fail at their task, they will abandon Google in a heartbeat. Google’s dominance is EARNED, with every search, every click.

I saw Google’s Marissa Mayer give a talk at Web 2.0 a few years back about Google page load times — the talk had a narrowly focused, OCD quality to it. It was weird on the face of it. But this is how Google wins. By obsessing over user experience above all else.

This is also why Google punishes advertisers who try to trick users or provide a poor user experience. Because it reflects poorly on Google. And users don’t come back.

A commenter argued that I should have asked the Washington Post for a comment before publishing a critiquing of their site. My response was that in an analysis of a user experience with a web site, the publisher’s intent DOESN’T MATTER. Web users are utterly unforgiving. If it doesn’t work the way I want, I’m gone in a click. There is no other side to the story.

That’s brutal and, as the commenter asserted, rude and irresponsible. It just doesn’t seem fair.

But it’s also the reality of the web. Google understands this. If publishers want to compete, they need to accept this reality, swallow their pride, and realize that the user experience is EVERYTHING. Design on the web is not about ideals — all that matters is whether the user succeeds.

Before the web, having great content was enough. The irony of my critique of WashingtonPost.com is that it wasn’t a critique of content. They had GREAT content, when I actually found it — there weren’t really any editorial shortcomings. The critique had much more to do with software design than with editorial quality or judgment. News organizations need to add software user interface design to their core competencies.

Lesson for publishers: The web is more about applications than publications.

This is why it’s so damaging for news organizations to apply the standards of print publishing for design, content, and experience — they simply don’t apply on the web. The reality is that designers didn’t necessarily know if they were successful in print, because people kept subscribing to the newspaper anyway. But on the web, success or failure is evident with every click.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that user interface and user experience design are HARD. Even the best designer can’t always anticipate what users will do — or fail to do. Sites need to create a continuous feedback loop with users and improve their design and user experience over time.

WashingtonPost.com’s homepage has a far better design than many other newspaper websites, but its relative merits didn’t matter for my specific use case.

And to be clear, helping users succeed isn’t about pandering. My goal in going to WashingtonPost.com, as it frequently is, could be to find out what’s going on in the world. How I determine whether I’ve succeeded can be much more a function of the quality of editing and content. But when I want specific information, my criteria are far more narrow, and much more unforgiving.

According to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, web users are actually getting MORE hyper-focused and. unforgiving

To remain relevant as a destination, news sites need to help me achieve ALL my objectives ALL of the time.

Just like Google.

UPDATE:

Google is inviting users to help them test out new features of Gmail. Can you imagine your average news site integrating users this deeply into their design process? I know that some have made meaningful efforts to test new designs, but Google keeps upping the ante on the embrace of users.