The Guardian Launches an Open Redesign for US Readers
The new site is responsive, speedy, and fully backed by new tools for journalists
A new version of theguardian.com is being unleashed today, and its launch marks an important moment in open development—because, for many readers, the new site isn’t new at all. It was developed entirely in the open, with the code in a public GitHub repo and the design being refined in a public beta and detailed in a project blog that discusses design concepts, the team’s collaboration with an ouside information architecture agency, various rounds of testing, and more.
I spoke with some of the project’s leaders this week in the run-up to the release, and they were uniformly enthusiastic about the open development process. Wolfgang Blau, director of digital strategy at Guardian News and Media, emphasized that the Guardian’s deep commitment to open journalism is far from new, and that product development at the newspaper is built to reflect that reality.
The new Guardian site introduces major reader-facing changes to the paper’s US site, including:
- A modular “container” content model that groups information in ways that reflect reading patterns and interests, rather than arranging it strictly in accordance the paper’s internal divisions, and interleaves video and other rich media with text-based stories. The team developed this model in collaboration with Information Architects, and have tested it extensively with readers to positive feedback.
- An updated and fully responsive site design that dramatically simplifies the home page and other landing pages for easier scanning and in-depth reading across computers and devices. (It also offers pleasantly speedy loading times, which is a nice complement to the device-friendly responsive work.)
- A new visual structure for advertising, designed to offer a wider range of advertising opportunities that are also less intrusive into the reading experience. The new site’s first “takeover” campaign launches Monday, and Guardian US vice president, product Cecilia Dobbs notes that the team has focused on reader-friendly advertising integration from the very first phases of the redesign, to ensure that they arrived at an ad system that the editorial team and beta readers responded to positively. (More at AdAge.)
The Tools That Make It Work
In addition to changing the way the US site looks, the Guardian has changed the way it behaves: a content model that offers new groupings of information that break the usual silos requires that someone be working behind the scenes to arrange and rearrange those groupings. So behind the site’s new public face lies a suite of new tools that allow staff to curate stories into containers, and also to change a given article’s visual status and display on the site, quickly and easily, throughout the article’s lifecycle.
These backend tools, which also include a multi-device preview to prevent responsive-design headaches, were developed with the same attention to usability as the website itself. Alex Breuer, creative director of Guardian News & Media, demonstrated the sleek new curation and preview tools in action, and in doing so offered a glimpse at a much less painful future for the slow, clunky content management systems that still torment so many newsrooms.
Iterating Toward Richer Reader Interaction
The new site will roll out in the UK and Australia over the next few months, and Dobbs emphasized that although the US launch introduces many new features at once, iterative site improvements are ongoing, to the tune of an average of five code pushes per day.
Still to come is the “Open Module,” a system that simplifies the mass insertion of specific calls for reader interaction into all articles on a given topic—a new feature that the team sees as the logical next step for a news organization that maintains a collaborative relationship with its readers.
The new site design already includes additional features that allow staff members to highlight excellent reader comments by positioning them within an article’s text, rather than in a separate section at the bottom, and the Open Module will expand the Guardian’s commitment to working with reader input in meaningful ways. “As inconvenient as comments sometimes can be,” Blau notes, “we see how they make us better journalists and help us discover stories earlier,” which is one of the reasons the Guardian has chosen not to rely on third-party tools or moderation services to handle reader interactions.
Ahead of the Open Module’s introduction, the newspaper is already preparing to boost its existing Guardian Witness team, which works with journalists to verify reader-submitted information and moderate publicly displayed comments, and to provide the significant amount of additional labor required to handle reader interactions in a non-cursory way.
Coda: The Nuances of “Open”
Though I’d been watching the Guardian’s code on GitHub and following their development blog for months, I heard about the site’s launch through a relatively conventional media relations process, complete with an embargoed press release. I asked the team how they managed to integrate the constant small changes of iterative, open design with the desire for a joyful official launch of the site. Blau acknowledged the apparent tension, but downplayed the potential for conflict—with blogs and several other parts of the site switched over to the new design prior to today’s launch, he said that the closest thing to an old-school switch-flipping launch of the past was when the main article content appeared in the new template, along with 100% of the content linked from the home page. “It’s not the old days of the Big Bang launch,” he added, “and we’re all very thankful for those days being over!”
With the new site fully launched, readers and interested newsroom developers will see the team’s ongoing process of iteration continue up to and after the Australian and UK launches. We’ll cover the big ones as they emerge.