Editor’s note (2018): Since the original publishing, I’ve changed my mind a few times on what makes a good front page. Ultimately, I’ve settled on the staggeringly simple opinion of “it depends” and “know your audience”. Shocking.
Following my post on The Front Page, I had a good email conversation with my buddy, Nick Heer. Our conversation brought up some more ideas regarding page design, and I wanted to expand on them here. Consider this post as part of an ongoing, public discussion and exploration of rhetorical design for the front page of a news- and journalistic-focused website.
Visitor Accessible Post Data
The following components can be found in nearly every text-based document (post, article, etc.) on the Internet, and they should be considered mandatory data to make available to the reader:
- Permanent URI (often self-descriptive or in the address bar).
- Publication date.
- Full-text of the article.
Anything else (reading time, number of words, last updated date, and author name) is essentially unnecessary, albeit useful depending on what your communicative goals are.
Despite their necessity by nature, the four aforementioned pieces of information do not necessarily need to appear on the front page; as long as the reader has a way to access an individual post’s URI — where all four pieces of data should be visible — there is some leniency in what information should appear on the front page.
The Archives as a Front Page
If the plans are to update the front page frequently, which I’m assuming they are, the sterile nature of an archive-as-front-page approach may not be ideal. A single, long list of article titles on the front page is nondescript by nature, and unless you are giving visual clues as to which items were previously visited, the task of navigating a sprawling list of titles for new content can become difficult if the reader is unfamiliar with what headline they last read.
An attractive compromise might be to borrow some of the design from Rands in Repose where the layout features a single article in full text, followed by a list of other posts (or, optionally, the whole archive). However, for news-based front pages, this type of design is dangerous. This format communicates that the latest post (with large font and primary screen placement) is the one a visitor should put all their attention into. But what if the latest post isn’t interesting? You will have then set up a paradigm of forcing the focus on a single post without providing any alternative articles (of equal emphasis, and perceived importance) to a perplexed reader.
In addition, placing your archives underneath the full-text of a single post can create problems. Depending on how long your latest post is, the further down the page your archive will be pushed. This can be particularly bad if you’ve removed any navigation links to a standalone Archives page. Finally, if the front page doubles as an archives, why have redundant navigation?
A Switch Back to Liberal Design
Although I’m not sold on the liberal 10-20 most-recent-posts for the front page, this layout appears to be relatively safe for handling reader expectations. In addition, listing several of the latest articles on the front page allows the reader to gauge a comprehensive opinion of the type of writing the author is doing.
For me, I’ve switched to a layout that displays the five most recent articles in full-text, followed by a link to the Archives page at the bottom. Although this decision reverses what I had initially decided to do, it’s a reminder of the inherit beauty of research. Not all roads lead to favorable results, but they do lead to discovery.