We Need Better Article Tools

The best frameworks are in my opinion extracted, not envisioned.

And the best way to extract is first to actually do.

Mike Davidson

Back in the day when web browsers sucked and the browser wars were in full forece, features were added to make each browser feel slicker and more advanced. New tags were being added to allow for text scrolling across the screen, the kids could skin their browser with hello kitty and bikini-clad models, and the Real Name System tried to overpower the URL. Unfortunately, they would ignore simple user wishes, to be able to print or email a web page. Some even botched up the ability to let readers resize the content of a web page (although web page authors need to take a bit of credit for that mistake).

To try and offer their readers some sort of usable product, web page authors on an ad-hoc basis took it upon themselves to fulfill some of these needs. Printer friendly versions of articles were made available, stripping everything that might possibly make the reader's printer choke. Some would also offer the ability to email stories using their mail servers. This practice has gone on so long that readers now expect these tools as part of a site, rather than looking to their browser.

NeMeJo blanked statement #1:

Any feature currently being used by 75% of the top information sites should be abstracted into to the browser.

Internet Explorer 7 (along with CSS) has tried to fix the printing problems, Mozilla has clean solutions to the text-resizing problems, and the emailing issue has been fixed for most people for the past 5 years or so. However, website authors are still finding themselves hacking together basic usability tools for every new website they build.

Please wake me when I can stop building these features into every article:

  • Printer friendly pages
  • Email story to a friend
  • Breadcrumb trails
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Syndicate to NewsVine/Digg/Reddit/etc
  • Comments

Yes, many browsers solve a few of these problems...but I'd love to see the NY Times try to dump any of these off of their article pages

When we can get past recreating these basic usability tools for every site, maybe then we can focus on the editorial tools that readers might be interested in. Tools for organizing, sharing, and following up on events, topics, and specific articles. The beginnings of these are "related articles", but there are many more possibilities. Trails, NY Times News Tracker, weblogs, and various types of personalization.

Tagging - Alot of work goes into the hierarchy of a site, news, entertainment, sports, etc. But those labels are only marginally useful to readers. Allow readers to organize the content themselves into categories of their choosing. Those categories may be useful to only the smallest niche, but they're doing the work themselves, so no harm done. Flickr has already moved on to second generation tags (machine tags), while newspapers are still just sticking their toes in the water.

Discussions - Letting readers discuss the story amongst themselves is a must for any relevant news organization. If the discussion isn't happening on your site, it is happening somewhere else (if it isn't happening anywhere you'd better begin looking for other work). I'm sure we can move past tacking the comments to the end of the story...CommentPress is one of many experiments in this direction.

Tracking - If they're just looking for a specific set of stories, you should make an effort to let them know when it is available.

Syndication - RSS, javascript widgets, flash widgets, etc. Give other websites every opportunity to be the front door into your site.

Editing/Corrections - Make it as easy as possible for your readers to tell you how dumb you've been.

Mapping - Your readers aren't necessarily from the same neighborhood, city, state, region, or country that the story is based on. You don't need to have the maps as the primary object, but you should always allow your reader to see where Darfur is.

Rating - Would they recommend this story to anyone? Just folks interested in this topic? Why did they read this story?