It's no coincidence that the most web savvy people I know spend a lot of time on the New York Times website. While most newspapers fought the web, they dove in head first and become a source of inspiration for many of us in the web field. For our agency partners who have a strong background in print design, there is a lot to learn from their approach.
They make browsing fun (and place it where it makes sense).
You may have noticed a new feature pop up in the lower right corner of nytimes.com web pages recently. As you scroll to the end of an article, a small box pops out from the right, suggesting another story that might interest you. The pop out affect of this feature is eye catching and fun, but what's really smart about this addition is its context within the page. Users may be forced to tune out related articles in the upper right of web pages (where these browse items are often placed) because they're concentrating on reading the article itself. By the time they've scrolled near the bottom of the page, they have the mental space to consider what to read next. It also mimics one's innate sense of reaching for the lower right corner of a page when reading a book.
New browse related feature that pops out from lower right as you scroll near bottom of article.
They don't skimp on editorial imagery
Most people would consider creating editorial imagery a design/content strategy concern, but I believe it's a usability matter too. A thoughtfully chosen editorial image that explains the point of a feature, article, or product can have more impact than any interface choice you make. Planning out site architecture to include consistent, well place editorial imagery is one of the best usability or design investments you can make.
Sure, the NYT is in a better position than any of us to create great imagery, as they have a staff of photographers and illustrators at their disposal. But as you can see from the examples below, many of their images don't require a professional photorapher or especially skilled designer. Some of their best images are collages, much like those that my coworker Chris Butler produces for blog and newsletter posts on this site. Creating these images can be a creative catalyst to your writing (read Chris's description of 'visual thinkers' in last month's blog post on ways to improve your blog).
Great examples of editorial imagery from nytimes.com
They're not afraid to make you their guinea pig
New features come and go on the nytimes site, which might seem wasteful to some, but I think it's a sign of a web team that understands how you build a great user experience. It's clear they try something, aren't afraid of sending it live, then evaluate the data and decide whether it makes the cut. With the range of A/B site testing tools, and flexibility of most development platforms, there's no reason why we shouldn't take more chances with our sites. You can do all the planning in the world, but the only confirmation of what truly works on the web can be found through sending a feature live and evaluating the data. It seems like the NYTimes.com really gets that, and lets its users behavior determine what stays and goes.
NYTimes Innovation Portfolio (an innovation in and of itself) publicly showcases interactive features and their success rate.
Incremental Improvements, not Massive Redesigns
The most impressive thing about the NYTimes site to me is that I can't recall the last time they unveiled an entirely new site. They seem to have an incremental approach to improving their site instead of launching major redesigns that attempt to solve everything at once. I love this approach for so many reasons: it improves rather than reinvents their existing system, it doesn't turn the user's experience upside down for the sake of a 'wow' redesign unveiling moment, and it allows you to isolate variable changes in your analytics data. The web design and development fields love the thrill of grand unveiling of a redesign (myself included), but it does impair our ability to pinpoint what site changes actually improve user experience. Just like any science experiment, isolating variables, user groups, and comparing results is the only way to truly know if your gut sense about what works best on your site is true.
A recent NYTimes experimental feature called 'The Skimmer' which gives you an alternate 1 page view of a daily issue.