There’s so much talk about news at the moment with the moves to bring back paywalls (as I’ve written about previously here) and the general nervousness among old media houses that the likes of Google are stealing their thunder (and their ad dollars). Everyone is musing about how this will play out, who will be the winners and what is actually the best way to deliver news to web users. A couple of things have struck me in the last couple of days that deserved a blog post.

Firstly, Google have launched a new product from its labs department. Google Fast Flip is being touted as a new way to read the news, that brings the web experience more in line with newspapers. Basically Google has taken screenshots of web pages containing news stories and put them into a neat user interface that allows you to flip between stories and zoom in on them before deciding whether to click through to the original article.

Google Fast Flip

Google Fast Flip

It’s a really nice way to browse and a great UX to find serendipitous content as you might stumble across something you’re interested in. Of course there’s also Google’s search power under the hood so you can narrow down the content available, isn’t there?

No, it seems that Google hasn’t put it’s search power to good use by letting you search the full content of the articles available (I’ve tested it by searching for specific content within the stories). It is actually just a nice UI to flip and browse through news stories, it doesn’t put that UI on top of the power of Google News though.

Secondly, Microsoft recently unveiled a vision of a ‘Next-Generation Newspaper’ as part of a response to a request from the Newspaper Association of America asking for ideas about ‘monetizing digital content’. The next-generation newspaper delivered as part of their response is remarkably similar to Tweetdeck, as noted by Nieman Journalism Lab today.

Microsofts idea for a 'next-generation newspaper'

Microsofts idea for a 'next-generation newspaper'

The news-deck delivers content in an RSS reader kind of way using a stack of Microsoft technology, content and advertising products. It looks good, and the promise of semantic search, personalisation and contextual awareness is promising.

So, are either of these a ground breaking new way to consume news and do they hold enough promise to herald the future of web based news reading? I don’t think so. They both offer nice solutions to different types of user scenario in my opinion.

Google Fast Flip is a great UI that allows for casual browsing of the news in a similar kind of way to which I read the Sunday newspapers. It’s a coffee and bacon sandwich type situation, but not a serious trawl for information experience for me. It’s too much detail upfront with not enough ability to refine for anyone serious (or used to) discovering content online or even using RSS readers. At least with an RSS reader you can make your choices of who to subscribe to and read articles based on headlines or quick glances at the content. Yes, this is a quick way to thumb the pages but it’s a little gimicky for me and doesn’t fulfill my needs for consuming information. Google partnered with top newspapers to create this but I don’t think it helps them. Digital news content is consumed in a different way to paper content and I think this needs more work before it could ever become the norm for online news reading. Must admit it’s nice on an iPhone though!

Microsoft’s  news-deck aproach suits my needs much better. It has the search and refine type features I’d demand and a familiar UI that works for dashboard type experiences. Is it the future? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s a little lame of Microsoft to propose a solution like this to the challenge from the NAA, it’s too similar to RSS readers and looks too like a cross between Netvibes and Tweetdeck. In fact if you read the details of their response (available from the Nieman Labs post) it really does just sound like next-gen Netvibes to me. It’s not really the future, more what we have now mk2.

Now I’m not sure what the future of news consumption is but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. If you could combine the two you might be getting somewhere, if Fast Flip allowed me to search and read all the content and not click off to the news source it might be better and if Microsofts dashboard wasn’t just a rehashed Netdeck/Tweetvibe it might get me more excited. Personally I’m seeking something more intelligent and with better data mining possibilities to satisfy my search for news (and I wouldn’t limit it to news, any solution should be my medium for information consumption as a whole).

One thing this does make apparent though is that as much as the newspapers and old media want to pull their content in and keep it close, they are going to have to relinquish their hold and let their content free as whatever the user experience of the future is it will demand that.

Great post from Jakob Nielsen on the dangers of going web 2.0 crazy from a usability point of view!

Highly poingant as we’re implementing a lot of AJAX at the moment. Overkill is deadly and could trash your conversion rate. Keep it minimal, useful, effective (AJAX is great for some things, pointless for others), simple, usable and give clear instructions where needed.

I agree with his pitch on user generated content as well. Pointless if your audience/customers aren’t ready for it or if you have nothing interesting for them to talk about (that said, great in an emotive environment such as online travel if used wisely).

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