How Do You Design A Great Blog? Inside A Business Week Debate.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on May 24, 2007

For any individual or corporation interested in the how’s and why’s of blogs and blogging, the discussion taking place here about the new Business Week blogs is insightful, instructive and rare—you hardly ever get a peek at this kind of internal discussion.

We have our great designer, David Sleight, arguing that he designed the new blogs so that they would break with the tired conventional forms out in the blogosphere. And he wanted to create a space for longer-form blog posts that some BW bloggers prefer.

That’s all to the good. But…the new blog design for NEXT, the blog of Jessi Hempel and Helen Walters (who runs the I&D channel) is so unconventional, it doesn’t look like a blog. It doesn’t immediately tell the audience what kind of conversation that are entering. It may be that going too far out of the box of conventional blog design generates the kind of cognitive dissonance that confuses and ultimately hurts the effort to build a community.

My biggest difficulty with the blog design is that the designer didn’t do basic ethnographic research before designing it. That is, he didn’t get to know Jessi and Helen and how they might actually blog. Anyone who does know them realizes that they would be posting many times a time, in short form, long form, all kinds of forms.

So we have a classic designer error. Know all your consumers. In this case, they are both your blog writers and those who read the blog. With the new blog design, new posts basically disappear and require too much effort to resurrect. You can’t readily see posts building on one another as a theme, which is the strength of traditional blog design.

David promises to change the blog design to embrace Jessi and Helen’s style. That’s great. But that will now take time. Jessi and Helen can’t post nearly as many times a day as they would like, which is too bad because their site is terrific. It would have been far better to have done design research on them and with them beforehand.

These are important lessons for everyone in social media and beyond to get. Breaking too far out of the conventional form may lose your consumers (remember the Aztek car?). Assuming functionality without actually understanding who will be using it may lose your consumer (remember those early VCRs?). In blogging, the most important thing may be the chemistry between bloggers and their audience and that’s a difficult element to design.

Reader Comments

csven

May 24, 2007 3:26 PM

"So we have a classic designer error."

While I may agree with you that the blog might be too unlike familiar formats, I'd point out that you are making a classic *management* error by breaking a golden rule: "praise in public, criticize in private".

In my opinion,what you've done here wasn't necessary and at the very least could have been handled differently. For example:

- you could have left his name out of it and thus not publicly chastised him.

- you could have asked him to write something that masked or spun this in a gentler manner; for example posting a quote from him that amounted to a "lessons learned" for which he could be given the credit of acknowledging/discovering a mistake and endeavoring to correct it (even if it was all theater).

- you could have dispersed this across a "team". Does no one review the work? Not even the blog authors? If not, why not? I don't care if Armani is a great fashion designer, I'll try the clothes on before I go in public, thank you very much.

Personally, I'd rather not get "insider" views if it means potentially belittling someone in this fashion.

Please don't don't do this again.

(And yes, I save all my comments, Bruce)

WiredPete

May 24, 2007 5:35 PM

I think this is less about ethnographic research and more about a difference of opinion of what the essential design principles for a blog are.

What I mean by this is that if we were to ask a hundred bloggers what constitutes a blog, we would get wildly divergent opinions of its essential qualities. Some might say it's a rapidly updated online journal that allows people to deliver fresh information fast. Others might cite an ability to have a conversation with readers. Still others might fixate on details of formatting, down to two versus three-column format.

From those answers (and some rigorous analysis, natch!), you could probably distill what qualities are absolutely essential to the design of any blog. I'm not positive, but it's quite likely that the design of Next falls outside of what people consider to constitute a blog.

That's a problem, especially with a technology so early in its adoption. While people are comfortable or even excited with novel book cases and lamps that look nothing like our iconic images of lamps and bookcases, they're far less ready for an mp3 player that looks like a bobblehead doll. Until people have used a technology long enough to intuitively understand its essential design principles, it's a good idea not to stray too far from the traditional design of that technology.

By breaking the mold just a little bit, perhaps the Next blog becomes utterly unrecognizable as a blog to most readers. It's less about the habits of its authors and much more about the conceptual models of the readers.

Either way, it's been an interesting experiment, and I really kind of like the look of Next. Very interested to see how it changes going forward.

Kyle

May 24, 2007 9:03 PM

Good points, Bruce. However, I would argue that that design issues you've raised are not as severe as you seem to indicate.

I think the new design, by getting rid of the blogroll on the left, keeps a proper focus on the content, and all that would be needed to really improve the blog is adjusting the cap on the main content area from showing 1 post, to showing 2 or 3, or whatever is appropriate for the authors frequency.

A bigger problem for me with the design is the prominence of the ads, which are far too overwhelming to allow me to focus on the content of the page. Actually, I would just get rid of the title graphic (I thought it was an ad) and replace it with nice, simple and clear typography.

Bruce Nussbaum

May 24, 2007 9:33 PM

Kyle,
Thanks. This is really helpful. If we can show three, four, maybe five posts, depending on the frequency, that would give Jessi and Helen a way to blog frequency and have their audience see what's up and follow different themes.
Bruce

David Sleight

May 25, 2007 6:56 PM

Thanks for the comments everyone.

This post strays a bit from the point at issue, which is the design of our blogs. The design group here at online sits in the corner of the editorial floor, elbow to elbow with the editors, and we revel in the vibrant daily dialogue that creates. We interact each and every day, all day long. But that's not an issue that's either germane or constructive here.

To be clear, this issue isn't just about NEXT. When we set out to do this design we were looking for layouts that could be rolled out across the board. We were "designing for the platform," a necessity in high volume, fast turnaround web environments like BusinessWeek. We never just "design for design's sake," or do things simply to be different. The old template, which predates my tenure, is showing its age and could benefit from some smart updating. In the past the majority of our bloggers leaned heavily towards lower frequency, longer format posts (relative to most of the blogosphere). There were some notable exceptions. But we we needed a foundation that suited the largest majority. From there we take advantage of the plastic nature of the medium and customize where needed. NEXT was obviously one of those that needed tweaking, and that's exactly what we did. (Updates are live as of this morning. I encourage everyone to check them out.)

It's telling that throughout this dialogue clear, concise answers to the question of what a blog should "look like" are hard to come by. Everyone intuits these things, but can't necessarily articulate them. Even after several years, blogs are still a nascent medium meaning many different things to many different people. They are adaptable by nature. (Blogs that look like magazines, magazines that look like blogs.) No one answer is ever going to serve all occasions.

That's because blogs aren't really about where your blogroll is positioned or how many posts appear -- they're about writer voice and community.

rmacon

May 26, 2007 1:34 AM

okay, i read this blog and several others frequently and honestly I have to say that the discussion around the visual design of the blog is rather moot.

more and more bloggers are simply sending out random posts that have no sense of narrative. Yes, narrative. I understand the concept of journalism and the idea of creating a sense of conversation, but without a clear editorial/content strategy the visual design can only make it look pretty or at best help users more easily find random threads of disconnected concepts.

I would suggest that maybe the issue was not about ethnography or designer insight and maybe more about a clear sense of what the blog is trying to communicate. I have read the Next blog and found the content disjointed at best.

More and more I'm hearing about the convergence of business and design. The one area of design that has always been undervalued is content and when I say content I'm not talking about the words I'm talking about the story that is told over an extended period of time.

If we aren't careful we are going to push the conversation around the convergence of business and design to a point that we loose sight of the aspect of design that provides the substance.

Maybe the internal conversations that should be revealed around this topic should focus on the editorial dialog that occurred between the bloggers and the designer.

-randall

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March 1, 2011 6:37 AM

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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