I want you to imagine trying to have a conversation with a friend who has a tendency to speak very quietly, so quietly that you almost have to strain to hear him. Now I want you to imagine someone—no, three someones—shouting at you while you try to have this conversation. Last, imagine that a fourth person walking right up to you, between you and your friend, and trying desperately to sell you something you will probably never be interested in.
Putting it mildly, we might call this situation aggravating. But if these obnoxious people were a normal part of every conversation, we’d probably find a way to get used to it. We’d develop ways of quickly dismissing the interrupting salesperson and we’d learn to tune out the shouting. Maybe we’d even develop specially designed hearing aids so we could better hear the one person we’re actually trying to talk to. But I think we can all agree that this scenario would be less than ideal.
Something else we all can agree on is that people visit blogs to read and view the blog’s content. Given the purpose of a blog, surprisingly little space on most blogs is actually dedicated to the content. There are the links encouraging you to share, the plea for a comment, the related posts, the most popular posts, the other encouragements to share, and a listing of all your Facebook friends who ever even thought about visiting this page. This circus of links surrounds the main content, which is typically set in a less-than-comfortably sized font.
I’ve yet to even mention the bold advertisements that scream, “Look at me!” louder even than former Hollywood big shots on their way to rehab. Some of them even take up the whole screen and make you stare at them for a several seconds before finally offering a close button. I’m looking at you, Forbes.
Blog design has gotten progressively worse over the last couple decades and readers have had to find various ways of coping. Personally, I make liberal use of my browser’s Reader view, which filters out most of the noise and gives me a reasonably pleasant reading experience. But as James might say if he were here, “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”
The Reason for the Problem
As someone who spends a fair amount of time running a blog, I can understand the reasons behind where we are today. If you come to my blog and read a post, that’s good. But it’s far better if you come to my blog, read a post, and then do something else like sharing the post, commenting, subscribing, or reading a few other posts.
Besides that, I spend money to host my website and I spend copious amounts of time working on my blog. While I personally choose not to do much with ads, other bloggers need them to afford their next meal. Requiring them to stop advertising would be like unto muzzling an ox as he threshes the grain. We wouldn’t want yet more starving artists working at Starbucks, would we?
Bloggers get more page views through people sharing, commenting, and clicking on other posts. Page views drive ad revenue. Ad revenue is what companies and independent bloggers require in order to stay in business, so there’s your perfect storm for a barrage of annoying links. Selah.
Designing a Better Blog
A blog needs to accomplish two things. Fist, it needs to provide content to users in a readable and pleasant form. Next, it needs to encourage users to do more than just read one post and leave. Many designers and bloggers have favored the latter goal to the harm of the former, spurning the hand that feeds them. But if it’s good for business, who cares if it annoys the readers?
Design, at its best, is obedient to the second greatest command, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Good design seeks to benefit the user first, not the person who stands to make a profit. For a long time, I leaned so heavily in this direction that my blog almost entirely lacked any encouragement for users to engage with posts and seek out more content. To keep things pleasant for the user, I favored minimalism. But minimalism isn’t everything.
Slowly, I started adding typical blog stuff, like share buttons and a commenting system. Each time I did this, though, it was almost painful. I didn’t want my blog to become irritatingly noisy and I felt like each thing I added was another dangerous step down that icy, inclined plane. I didn’t want the things the user could do after reading the post to get in the way of his actually reading it. I also didn’t want the options I was giving him to seem overbearing even after he was done.
A while back, I had an idea. I decided to put the things I’d like the user to do after reading the post below the post. It sounds simple, and good design usually is. But you’d be surprised how few blogs actually do this. Common wisdom is to hit people with options as soon as they load the page—if not sooner. I think common wisdom is mean to users.
I started trying to add the options for sharing, commenting, and finding related posts at the end of the post, but even this got noisy. “Thanks for reading, now comment! No, share! Actually, check out these posts! Also this post is part of a category that you should check out!” The user still feels mugged, even if you waited to do it until his back was turned.
My solution was to not show all the options at once. I decided to give the user three buttons and let him decide what he wants to do, putting the options in front of him and letting him click whatsoever he desires. Admittedly, this puts an extra step (clicking) between the user and doing something like sharing or commenting, but I suspect this will actually encourage engagement because the user will feel like he has a simple decision to make rather than a pantheon of angry link-deities to appease.
That’s how I came to the current design. I’m sure I’ll iterate on it in the future, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It makes a real attempt at giving users a positive reading experience while also giving them an easy-to-use menu once they’re done reading. But design all just theory until real users start using it, so give the new menu below a try…