The organization of corporate news and information websites is remarkably consistent, and has been for some time. You can picture it now: a top or left navigation menu of broad categories, with the rest of the page organized into a multi-column clutter of headlines, blurbs, images, promotions, and ads. It has come to be called the “magazine” style because of its similarity to the layout of physical newspapers and magazines.

However, users are increasingly getting news and information from other sources. One type of source is a personal aggregation platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Digg, an RSS reader, and so forth. These sources require more flexible and automated layouts, in contrast with the carefully editorialized layouts of corporate news websites.

In addition, more and more users are getting news and information on their mobile devices—a platform where the magazine-style, multi-column layout isn’t possible due to screen size limitations.

The predominant model for both the personal aggregation platforms and for mobile devices is the news feed. The magazine and newspaper layout was the mental model during the transition from printed to digital content. However, the news feed is native to the digital format, and is much more ideal for presenting digital content.

Defining the News Feed

I define the news feed broadly as a single-column display of content objects, such as articles, article snippets, blog posts, tweets, or links. These objects are serial, in reverse chronological order, and without sorting options. Prioritization is indicated by placement within the feed, and sometimes by visual weight. Usually the feed is accompanied by some filtering or supporting information in a sidebar, and perhaps a few featured content objects.

Why It Works

The news feed has several attributes that make it ideal for digital content presentation:

  1. It fits with online user behaviors and browsing styles
  2. It is an efficient, practical design solution
  3. It has cross-platform versatility
1. It fits with online user behaviors and browsing styles

Users are impatient, and they want simplicity. I've seen this in user testing we've done at Lunch.com, where I work, as well as in past focus groups and user research projects. News feeds are simple. They're perfect for the lazy, impatient scanner. They require no diagonal scanning, and there are no ads to avoid, nor any confusion about what to look at first. News feeds allow for a dead simple, downward, vertical eye movement.

This contrasts with corporate news websites, such as NYTimes.com. When you go there, what do you see first? What's prioritized? Where do you start? The layout is complicated and you find your eye jumping and shifting all over the page. Now go to Facebook. The layout is simple—you start at the top of the page and move down. It's easy, and perfect for the impatient mindset of the average Web user.

2. It is an efficient, practical design solution

For sites where the user is personally aggregating content from multiple sources, such as Twitter, Facebook, Digg, RSS readers, or email inboxes, the news feed model is a very practical way to solve that design problem. The content aggregated by different users can vary widely, and the presentation needs to be flexible enough to accommodate these variations. So how can a single interface work for someone who’s following 500 people, as well as for the new user who is only following a couple friends? The same way the email inbox is organized—in order of recentness.

It’s also easy and fast to add new stories. Compared with the magazine style, where adding one story requires the publisher to shuffle around the rest of the content to make room, the news feed is easy. Just add a new story to the top and everything shifts down.

3. It has cross-platform versatility

This is crucial, and may be the most important reason that news feeds are the best way to present digital content. There is every indication that information consumers will continue to become more splintered across a wider array of device resolutions, interfaces, product types, and so on. Refactoring content for each new device has a continually diminishing ROI; each version will reach a smaller and smaller percentage of the audience.

News feeds are simple, so they expand and collapse gracefully, regardless of form factor. For interfaces on computer monitors, such as websites in a browser, an article can have a larger snippet with a byline, thumbnail image, share links, a blurb from the article, and so forth. For the mobile device, the snippet can be condensed to just a title and thumbnail.

Clearly, devices have different methods of interaction (touchscreen vs. mouse-based) and lend themselves to different user behaviors (iPad users are more consumption-oriented than laptop users, who are more interactive). So, variation from device to device is certainly required, and advisable. However, the less that has to be reinvented, the easier it will be to manage various sites and apps, and the more familiar users will become with a site’s structure.

Examples of This Change Already Taking Place

News and information websites are not stubbornly set in their ways, and seem to be experimenting quite a bit with simpler, feed-like displays:

  • The Reuters website utilizes a two-column layout, one column with the latest news and the other one with featured stories. It’s a very simple, scannable, and versatile design.
  • With its latest redesign, CNN launched NewsPulse, which presents news stories in a single column display with filtering options.
  • NYTimes has a product called the TimesSkimmer, which presents the day’s top stories and allows the user to change their method of page organization.

The Digital Content Ecosystem

I’ve heard the argument that news feeds work great on personal aggregation sites and mobile devices where there is no other efficient display method, but sites such as CNN or NYTimes.com have dramatically different content, user needs, and business needs. How can you make a comparison between the two, and why should the design of one affect the other?

The reason it matters is that they are both within the same digital content ecosystem. The behavior of a user scanning Twitter and Facebook impacts their behavior when they visit other content websites. If I’m accustomed to using the CNN app on my mobile device, it’s going to impact my expectations and browsing style when I visit their website on my laptop. Regardless of how usable a site is in a vacuum, when the user is rapidly jumping from site to site, or from their mobile device to their laptop, all their browsing experiences are deeply interrelated.

However, I am not suggesting that sites like NYTimes.com abandon their current layout and replace it with a single-column news feed. Their content is much too complicated to have such a simple display. However, as users consume more and more information on personal aggregation websites and on mobile devices, all content providers must evolve to meet these new user expectations and browsing styles, and come to think of the news feed as the default model for presenting digital content.