Four lessons for news sites from National Public Radio's redesign

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

Since the dawn of digital media, most news organizations have designed their websites to be online versions of legacy media. Most use an “above-the-fold” design that echoes the broadsheet newspaper. This format prominently displays the most important headlines, but creates an information-heavy landing experience for users.

Take for example, the U.S-based National Public Radio (NPR). Until recently, its site condensed top headlines onto a homepage featuring more than 100 links.

But when NPR unveiled its newly designed site this month, users encountered a much simpler homepage. At the top, it features just a few stories, simplified menus and a live audio program stream. And perhaps most notably, the site was designed to be responsive, meaning easily readable whether you're using mobile, desktop and tablet devices.

The new site offers key lessons for news outlets considering redesigns of their own:

Design responsively and mobile-first

A growing number of news sites are cultivating a “mobile-first mindset,” which is exactly what NPR achieved with its redesign. Because roughly half of NPR’s audience visits the site via a mobile device, the design team knew it needed a site that gives the user a rich experience, no matter the web browser or device.

Previously, NPR site visitors encountered one homepage design on mobile devices and a completely different one when they used a desktop. They found only abbreviated content when visiting from a mobile phone or tablet. But now, the site adapts to any browser and any screen.

Consider letting go of “above the fold”

To avoid overwhelming users with too many choices, NPR’s new design moves away from the "above the fold" approach and features fewer stories at the top. If a story is near the top of the homepage, it is usually accompanied by a large, engaging image that spans most of the page. Then, the user scrolls down the page through similarly displayed content “boxes."

This “infinite scrolling” concept was made popular by social blogging platform Tumblr. The New York Times’ Snowfall relied on scrolling to make the user feel as though news content comes in an endless stream. NPR's take on the concept gives users what NPR calls a "fluid but focused experience."

Simplicity can help users go deeper

With its new site, NPR aims to give stories more “space to breathe.” Readers have fewer stories to choose from initially, and each story that makes the cut includes more context. NPR hopes this will foster greater engagement and encourage users to go deeper into its content.

“We still give you a quick view of the top of the news, but for our most distinctive coverage, we now have the time and space to deliver you audio, images and video that are critical to understanding the news,” wrote Scott Montgomery, managing editor of NPR Digital News; Zach Brand, vice president of NPR Digital Media; and Patrick Cooper, senior product manager of “We can bring more voices and nuance, an experience much more like what you've always heard on air.”

Offer users choices and opportunities to engage

Let users individualize the way they experience the content. On the NPR site, users can access their favorite programs, topics and local stations. With the flexible story boxes, which vary in size and the type of media (such as text, image, audio or video), users have more choices about how to engage with content. And at the bottom of the page, users can load more stories from any of the major story sections (news, arts & life, books and music).

You can read more about the redesigned NPR website here.

Image: Courtesy of Flickr user infocux Technologies under a Creative Commons license.