USAToday.com's new look is getting a lot of attention. It's certainly an ambitious attempt to rethink a major news site and to blend in blogs, social networking, user-generated content, tags and other Web 2.0 features. Kudos to that—these are features every news site should be adding.
But it would have been nice if the USAToday.com folks had spent more time thinking about the site's design and how best to display all of these new features. The home page is a mess: It looks like it was laid out with a shotgun. There's very little differentiation among the various sections and stories—they all mostly carry the same, confusing weight. The reader's eye isn't really sure where to go. The little thumbnail photos on the left side that apparently are color-coded to interior sections are lost on the average reader, who has no idea what the color codes mean. Interesting features such as the On Deadline blog are loudly displayed (the logo overwhelms the adjacent content, in fact) but never really explained or properly promoted. Overall, the home page looks more like a collection of disconnected items than a well-thought-out whole.
Conversely, the interior pages are too Spartan—most of the ones I clicked into have almost none of the Web 2.0 goodness that's blaring from the home page. If stories can have comments and ratings (which the headlines on the home page seem to indicate with little icons and numbers), shouldn't there be a prominent way to add comments and ratings on an actual story page? Yeah, "Comment" and "Recommend" are there, in light gray type under the story page headline, but you have to look hard to find them—and they don't seem to be clickable. And there's no display on the story page of the actual comments or ratings.
The thinness of the story pages is especially odd since so much traffic to any news or information site originates on those pages (because of linking and search) rather than the home page. Any good news site story page template should function as a mini-home page to engage visitors to use more of the site. Except for rudimentary section navigation, USAToday.com's story pages are pretty much dead ends.
Gannett deserves credit for trying to innovate on USAToday.com, much as it has taken the lead in thinking about new ways to gather and manage news at its other papers. But this new design doesn't seem fully baked (and the number of technical errors I came across moving around the site was quite disturbing). As with virtually all redesigns, it will probably need a few weeks to shake down, with appropriate tweaks along the way. Right now, however, USAToday.com's new look is a noble, but frustratingly failed, experiment.