Young People and News on the Web

In the winter edition of Nieman Reports Vivan Vahlberg of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University discusses her experiences with a focus group of 17 to 22 year-olds. Some good news emerges as this group “Trusted news about the election more from well-known news organizations than from other sources” and “Valued the expertise and reporting of journalists more than opinions or comments, even from other young people.” More interesting, though, was

what young people say about what makes them tune out on news sites: too much information, too many details, too many choices coming at them all at once without enough guidance as to which are more important; too much unrelieved text; stories that go on and on; endless coverage of trivial stories, and features that aren’t immediately and intuitively understandable.

In short – too much. Part of this problem has to do with the kind of content that is created, and part has to do with design.

  • Too many things competing for attention, without signals about which was most important. They wanted someone (or something) to make choices. They wanted design to clearly signal priority.

  • Too many details and words. They wanted things distilled so they could understand them better without spending lots of time, but they also wanted additional resources available if they’re interested.

  • Too much text or too high a percentage of text to graphics. They valued information shortcuts.

  • A site feature that’s not immediately understood. If a feature has to be explained, they don’t look at it.

  • Pages or stories going on and on. Interest waned with scrolling.

Now think of just about every news site you visit. Aren’t they all an exercise in how much information can be crammed onto one page? There are competing priorities for any designer – expose the breadth of what is offered, while keeping the design simple. One solution may come through content structure, building simple pages that provide clear, obvious, and consistent paths to content. While users may be happiest when they get to their intended destination in the fewest clicks possible, they are also happy when they are confident that each click is getting them closer to that destination.

So it turns out that despite all of the complaining we hear, people, or at least young people, really do want editors. Not editors that hide certain content, but editors that expose certain content. Editors in the positive sense of suggesting the best of what the Web has, not the negative sense of only showing you what they think you ought to know. People want help, but they don’t want restrictions, and that principle has to carry through to design as well.

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