How Slate's redesign misses the lessons of Prego

slate-magazineLast week, Slate launched its long awaited redesign. For a site that is in my regular ‘morning tab’ browser run, to me, this was a big deal. According to the commentary by David Plotz, Slate was motivated by beauty and ease. There is much to like about the new design (for instance, getting rid of the tyranny of multiple article pages). But the designers have missed the opportunity taught to us by the makers of Prego.

In one of the earliest TED talks (from 2004), Malcolm Gladwell talked about spaghetti sauce. There, Gladwell tells about the reinvention of that sauce. Specifically, when Prego looked to find the perfect sauce (one that matched consumer tastes), they found that there was no such thing. That was because there was no one consumer. Consumers grouped themselves according different tastes. Some liked it lumpy, others spicy. So if you wanted to perfect Prego, the key was to abandon the notion of the perfect Prego. There were many Pregos and you needed to have different recipes for different consumers.

The same lesson is true for readers. Some readers like their news lumpy (reading once a day) while others like their news smooth (reading as it happens throughout the day). Slate’s redesign imagines that their reader is a combination of these. In the top left corner  are the ‘best of’ readers while in the top left is the ‘as it happens’ readers. Scroll down and to the right you get the ‘what everyone else is reading’ readers, the readers looking for spice in the center and to the left are the ‘I only like certain writers’ readers. And keep going and you have the ‘I only like sports’ readers and so on.

But there is no perfect Slate. There are perfect Slates. The new design understands that at some level but requires their readers to buy a ‘combination’ pack rather than a single variety. The good news is that there is something for everyone. The bad news is that no one can get just what they want. And if your aim is to attract attention so that you can place an ad, that is a serious problem. For the ads are at the centre. Aimed at the attention of the perfect consumer that doesn’t exist.

There is hope. This can be easily solved. Allow the readers to click and hide broad sections. That would be tasty.

27 Replies to “How Slate's redesign misses the lessons of Prego”

  1. This is sound in theory but really doesn’t play out in practice – time and time again we’ve seen large media home pages that attempt at some sort of user “customization” (which, at its core, is what collapsing sections would be). NBC News even allows the user to reorganize its sections to their preference. Great, lovely.

    Except less than 10% ever do. People SAY they want customization but rarely use it if implemented. While I agree that the Slate homepage is striving to be most things to most people, adding another layer of management won’t solve it.

    What will? Time. Muscle memory. Patterns. Users will simply fall into new routines and have reliable ways to discover news in the ways particular to them. And, increasingly, that won’e even happen on the home page – it will happen in the social networks where they congregate, where their habits help to curate their media discovery.

    1. I have the impression you might not have been a regular Slate reader before you redesigned it. Slate *is* a social network, but that aspect of it is broken now. Were you aware that the login is broken for users on IE and Mobile Safari and Android? Maybe you can explain the decision-making process behind the small grey font on a grey background? Could you please tell me how to resize it now? I’m not the only one who gets a headache from it, and the usual pinchy-zoomy touchscreen gesture doesn’t work anymore. Tech support doesn’t respond, and I assume they are overwhelmed, so maybe you can help us out?

      1. It sounds like a lot of the issues you and other users are having are with Slate’s third-party commenting engine, called Livefyre. Livefyre is sort of a plug and play service, and is likely limited in the amount of customization and features Slate is able to implement. (I say likely because I don’t have direct knowledge of the Comments aspect of the redesign, which extends to login/account support across multiple browsers. Just making some assumptions here…)

        I’d say your best bet is to reach out to both Slate and Livefyre directly: and see if they can help.

        Redesigns of this size are technically complex, and it will take several weeks to smooth out the bugs and bumps. But persistence on reporting them will help.

    1. Agreed. It’s awful and I have no desire to read directions on navigation! If you have to offer directions, something is wrong with the design.

  2. Leaving….where, exactly? Where are the metrics to support that assertion, beyond some bloviating in the commentary?

    Fact of the matter is most long-term users react this way when their favorite property is redesigned – it’s natural and expected. But let’s follow up in 3 months and see how Slate is doing. I’m pretty confident they’ll still be around.

  3. I’m another long-term user who has dumped (sadly) Slate from my line-up of daily reads: the home page is a huge confusing mish-mash that requires way too much time and effort to make sense of (cf. the somewhat similar confusion that obtains on the HuffPo and Daily Beast sites). Obviously, however, two dumpers (me and the commenter above) doesn’t count as “droves,” not even if we add in the complainers there after a WaPo article also decrying the redesign. Indeed what is needed are some hard numbers over some weeks and months to tell us whether Slate is hurting or helping itself with its redesign. I could imagine some initial euphoria at Slate, as the early numbers might have spiked: my guess is that many readers made repeated efforts the first day or two to figure the new Slate out. Some gave up. I’ll be interested to know how many hung on.

  4. I am another Slate dumper. I used to read every day. The old site wasn’t great, but it was useable. I don’t like any aspect of the redesign. I looked in today to see if it had gotten better, but it had not. I really hate the fonts and the spacing. I rarely watch videos, and one of the really annoying things is that the headline doesn’t indicate that you are clicking on a non-story that is only a video. I think the only explanation is that they decided to get rid of all of their old fogey text-based news junkies and go for a younger crowd, but my daughter hates it too, so good luck with that. In the comments about the story about the redesign it seems that about 99% are totally negative, but of course, those are the people they seem to want to go away.

    1. I think you’ve nailed the problem — I’m an old-fogey text-based news junkie and I have no patience for sorting through the mess that they’ve created. Maybe they don’t need readers like me? Too bad. I’m a real fan of the kind of reporting they do.,.,

  5. Ditto to the above — I’m a long-time loyal Slate reader who simply can’t handle the re-design. It’s incomprehensible and simply not worth the effort. I’m so flummoxed by what they’ve done that I did a Google search to see if any articles were written about this fiasco (and sure enough, I found this page).

    Slate won’t last a year if they stick with the new format. Mark my words.

    1. I’m another long time reader who’s dumped Slate. The site is so difficult to read and I can no longer see the comments section, which was one of my favorite features prior to the redesign. I’m still trying to find a replacement for Slate, as it’s nice to indulge in their click-bait-y polemics in addition to my normal news sources (Times and my local paper).

  6. Finished with Slate. Over a week playing with the new design and it just does not work.

    Just unsubbed my email notification subscription today. After years of daily use, I’ll find other content that works for me.

  7. I’ve dumped Slate, too. RyanTomorrow appears to be a Plotz shill — no, it’s not that we fear change, it’s that this change sucks. Badly. I joined twitter just to be able to keep in touch with some of the writers that I will miss, but no, I’m not reading Slate anymore.

  8. I will really miss Slate but agree that new format is much to blame. I think I am gone too. Can’t believe that they are now routing me to a site advertising their new store each time I select an article. This is the definition of reader-unfriendly.

  9. I’m also dumping Slate. Interestingly, though, I don’t just find the redesign confounding, but it crystallized something I had been noticing but couldn’t articulate: Slate had been hollowed out. It’s a collection of blogs, videos, etc. with very little substantive writing. The redesign is supposed to highlight this and help grazers who are into that kind of thing (whoever they are – it’s hard to imagine brainy Slate types jumping into the yahoo homepage model). Anyway, even if they restore a similar design, I now know why I left dissatisfied lately whenever I tried out a few articles: Slate died a long time ago.

  10. I’ve never seen that bad of a redesign. They literally seem to be telling people that they don’t want comments, which is simply bizarre in an age when you want to brag to advertisers about how many people visit your site and how long they stay. They’ve also made it virtually impossible to find articles that you saw on their site earlier. Google is actually a better way to find Slate articles than any navigation or search they have on their site.

  11. The redesign is the absolute WORST. I’ve been trying and trying and trying to get a handle on it, but I simply can’t. Like another commenter on here, I found this particular article after resorting to Google to figure it out. After 8 years, I’m out. You will be missed Slate.

  12. Another frustrated user dumping the site. I cannot for the life of me bring up comments — click the icon, page reloads, no comments. And is there truly no way to search the site, or can I just not find it? The site has taken a huge step backwards in usability.

  13. Yep, I’m another one who was so confounded by the redesign that I came here via a google for pieces that shared the woe.

    I don’t particularly mind the new front page – I tend to only read Slate through the occasional link, so it doesn’t make much difference to me, though I do hate the failure to signpost links that only lead to videos.

    What really gets me, though – and what completely obviates their efforts to get rid of the annoyance of non-single page articles – is that bigass bar at the top of the page. There doesn’t seem any way to get rid of it, and it covers the normal ‘overlap’ of text as you scroll down the page. Apparently I rely on that overlap to read smoothly as I scroll down, because with the bar in place I’m constantly missing a word or two at the end of the line and having to scroll back up to make sure I haven’t misread. It’s actually more annoying than having to click through multiple page articles, which I didn’t really think was possible.

    Up until the mid-nineteenth century or so, printers would tend to put ‘catchwords’ – the first couple of words from the next page – at the bottom right of each page. It helped with binding pages in order, but it also sped up reading, minimizing the jolt as the eye skipped from the bottom of one page to the top of the next. It was a civilized, generally awesome practice, and I didn’t even realise that the internet tended to effectively do the same thing until Slate decided to put a giant title bar in the way. So, um, thanks for that, Slate. But you’ve just slipped from ‘guilty pleasure’ to ‘not worth the effort.’

  14. I could adapt to the new design and maybe someday will, but the flat out dropping of a search function complete flabbergasts and annoys me. I’ve seen myriad comments about this yet no search function returns. Let them eat google searches is apparently their new motto. I can’t bring myself to come back to a site that so flagrantly disregards its users.

  15. I am glad to see these comments — I don’t feel so alone in my frustration and “bogglement” at what they’ve done to one of my favorite sites. I went from a several-times-per-day visitor to now just popping on long enough to read Dear Prudence — maybe — and getting out again.

  16. the redesign is fine with me, despite the mind-boggling lack of a ‘search’ function.

    it’s the persistent Livefyre issues that are going to drive me away.

    someone– somewhere– FIX IT.

  17. Cant even see the design, I evidently run something older or not accepting but I just get a sceen of text with no links to articles and overlays on overlays. As far as I can see this site is off the air. This is the second time this site did a disasterous redesign, (the mobile site also did not work on my Ipad). I get the feeling somebodys nephew or niece is running a design team over there. Too bad, I did like the site and altough I agree that it was hollowed out to only a few writers and features, I would have continued my reads on it if I was allowed. Good luck with the tiny window demographic of High tech, High patience, High information, left wing politically inclined readers. got to be a pretty small bubble of those floating out there

  18. Hate it, hate it, hate it! Bar at the top of the page is awful and as far as I can tell, can’t get rid of it. The home page is just a big mess, endless scrolling down to try and find some kind of order or organization. And I just hate the way it looks and feels. More and more, the site appears to be taken over by mind numbing click baiting garbage. How is it possible that some idiot decided to eliminate search? Goodbye Slate!

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