From the minute CNNSI.com went online two years ago, Managing Editor Steve Robinson had a mission that seemed made in media heaven: To become the Internet's be-all of sports coverage. And why not? Behind it was the combined clout of the Cable News Network Inc. TV powerhouse and Sports Illustrated's crackerjack writers and photography. Like Jeff Gordon barreling down the home stretch, Robinson's team tried to gain on cyber rivals ESPN.com and Sportsline USA Inc. by putting the content pedal to the metal. In 24 months, CNNSI.com's goodies quintupled, to more than half a million Web pages--everything from breaking sports news to stats on every player who ever played major league baseball.
But CNNSI.com also developed an increasingly common problem: In the midst of adding all this material, its design went bad. Over time, CNNSI became so packed with links, new sections, and graphics that it actually became too hard to find something as simple as the score of last night's ball game. Then it got worse. Robinson's team tried to make new graphic elements eye-catching enough to stand out from the site's clutter, but the opposite happened: Surfers ignored them, thinking they were ads. "We started piling on elements without going: `Wait a minute folks, we're going to confuse people,"' he remembers. "And once we'd put stuff on, we were afraid to take stuff off."
Pay attention to what happened at CNNSI.com, because it's happening all over the Web. ESPN, for example, launched a new design in September. In fact, many sites are staggering under the sheer volume of "stuff." There isn't a reason to limit the amount of content--chances are every bit of it appeals to somebody--but it gets harder and harder to get Netizens to their destinations with just a couple of intuitive clicks. "There's an illusion that we have all the space in the word to deal with. But there are limits to what you can do on a page, even on a site. At a certain point, you have chaos," says Web designer and author Jennifer Fleming of Somerville, Mass.'s Square Circle Solutions.
Conceding that you have a problem, though, is the first step to fixing it. Just in time for football season, CNNSI.com is pulling the warmup suit off a site redesign that tries to clean up the clutter. Robinson agreed to a Monday-morning quarterbacking session with e.biz to give us an inside look at how the design of the old site went wrong and to preview the new. At www.ebiz.businessweek.com, you'll find an exclusive sneak preview of the look scheduled to go live by Sept. 27, as well as graphics that illustrate some specific changes.
The No. 1 priority, Robinson explains, is to make sure the site's four main components are distinct and distinguishable--its news and scores, navigation elements, internal promotions, and advertising. Some simple graphic layout changes will make pages load faster. More important, the once-over will help give visitors more of the most timely sports news. That's what Robinson's group has realized that its visitors want most.
The overhaul began early this year. In online sports, a diverse fan base expects a lot more variety and doesn't necessarily agree with what editors think is the day's "top news story." Fans want to connect with their favorite sports even during the off-season. Or they may be stat hounds who play fantasy games. The trick is to make whatevera fan wants seem easy to find.
As editors tried to accommodate that, CNNSI's home page began to look as crammed as pants from 10 pounds ago. A long and unwieldy index box on the left side of CNNSI's home page, for example, was followed by a couple of dozen links for everything from fantasy leagues to free e-mail--much of it in type so tiny that the choices were hard to sort through. Even the site's own logo became lost under a box with internal promotions and sat beneath a banner ad across the top that was far more eye-catching. The result: It could take new arrivals a few seconds to actually be sure they'd arrived at CNNSI.com.
Perhaps more critically, the site's design blurred the line between editorial content and advertising. Page designers created arresting graphics for editorial features that ran above the news headlines on the front page's right rail. But thanks to garish colors and type styles, they ended up creating boxes that looked to many visitors like ads. CNNSI Interactive Coordinating Producer Joey Trotz says focus-group sessions unearthed some sobering data: Even when those boxes contained information users specifically were looking for--say, the scores of last night's game--people would simply not register that they were seeing it. They had trained themselves to avoid ads.
In the new design, Robinson has limited the colors and given these special features the same style and graphics as the CNNSI.com logo. They're now promoted just as aggressively but are better associated with the site's own style and editorial offerings.
Web design is only partly about graphics and visual appeal. For a site to really work, say experts, designers must envision the logical associations users will make--not just deliver splashy art for art's sake. That's one reason a whole new specialty of "information architects" now focuses on clear organization. They visualize how users will "navigate" through sites, much as real-world architects focus on things like where hallways should be to make traffic flow through a building smoothly. They work with accepted principles, such as data about where the eye tends to travel first on a page (to photographs and the upper-right-hand side) and create different user scenarios--then test them. "If [a site's design architecture] is done really well, you don't see it. If it's done poorly, it drives you insane," says Peter Morville, chief operating officer of Argus Associates, an Ann Arbor (Mich.) information-architecture firm.
Beyond just organization, another thing the CNNSI.com news team decided it had to do was pump up the news value of the site. Although it got 1.6 million unique impressions in July, according to Media Metrix, it's still a distant third to ESPN and Sportsline. By connecting the site promotions to the logo bar, Robinson can now pull at least four or five news stories higher on the page. In another key change, the area below the featured story in the middle of the home page now will be devoted to "Inside Game" stories that give readers new insights on timely topics.
The best Web designs demonstrate a keen understanding of who uses the site and then take the simplest approach to giving them what they want--and need. It's no wonder that a multifarious and fractious sports world can wrench a site's design off track.
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In the beginning, it was all so simple: A few lines of funky-looking HTML code in a text file turned on a light in your entrepreneurial soul. Soon you were adding features and content like crazy.
But whether you're CNN/Sports Illustrated or a local hobby store, it doesn't take long for your Web site to experience the cyberequivalent of urban sprawl. When that happens, you need a makeover. But where to begin?
With us. BUSINESS WEEK e.biz has asked a panel of Web-design experts to help us help you. If you think your site could use an overhaul, send us your URL, your business goals, and some details about your problem as you see it. Is your traffic declining? Are your customers confused? Are your downloads poky? If your site is chosen, our panelists will offer a critique and suggestions. We'll feature our reviews and makeovers on our online site (ebiz.businessweek.com). For more details, E-mail us at email@example.com.