Apr 29 2008

User Experience Review: SignOnSanDiego.com

Welcome to digital-telepathy’s newest section of our blog where we take well known brands and startups and put them through a User Experience (UX) review. We do these reviews as a way to promote untapped opportunities that these company’s have that seem to be just beyond their view of sight. We look at 4 main areas for our audit including their online brand strategy, social aspects, implementation of technology and functionality. All in all we hope the companies read our reviews, ask questions, comment and make changes to create a more enriching experience for their web community.

SignOnSanDiego.com is the digital sister of the San Diego Union Tribune. Since its launch almost 11 years ago, SignOnSanDiego.com has been through many redesigns – in fact almost every single year the design was changed completely. But is the functionality and UX farther along today than from their first version launched 11 years ago? Something tells me I’m headed for an interesting review…

Brand Strategy 3 Stars

Overall the brand is powerful. The Union Tribune has a very strong resonance with the community of San Diego which infiltrates over to SignOnSanDiego’s (SOSD) brand and credibility. SOSD has a lot of brand recognition as a reputable news source because of the UT.

Messaging: The SignOnSanDiego brand is not as prominent as it could be – especially on the homepage. The brand should be recognized as the most important part of the site – since it is powered by the UT. Elevate the brand to the level it truly is.

Header Image

Engagement Value: The Street Blog has a decent brand identity – the posts are light and easy to read. Some other things I noticed were the missing archive area (how do I access a post from last year?), no working RSS feeds for the blogs and a massive form I have to fill out before I can sign up for a site RSS feed.

Fun:
All of the interactive and community based features on the site are half way down the page and beneath the fold – it’s hard to find these features they’re the ones I want to see right away. If I don’t see these right away I am not going to spend a lot of time looking for them – ‘buh bye’.

Quality of Material: The material is informative and high quality. In my opinion the organization of the homepage makes the quality seem much lower than it really is.

Style: The style blows. The site is pushed over to the left side of the browser – not centered or clean. Tons of ads plastered on the homepage which dilutes the brand. Change the Entertainment Guide to look like SOSD content not an ad!

SignonSD Entertainment Guide Banner

7 Site Fixes to Do Now:

  1. Enlarge the logo and push to left margin.
  2. Do not allow ads and other brands in header space that “sandwich” the logo. That space should be reserved for your brand only.
  3. Include archive section on the weblog
  4. Create a one click process to sign up for the RSS reader. Get rid of the damn form!
  5. Rename the “forum” tab in the navigation to “blogs”
  6. Center the page with the browser
  7. Make sure content boxes do not resemble ads

Social 2 Stars

Overall, the social aspects of SignOnSanDiego need a face lift. There are hardly any viral components and little to no community management. Here is my review of the social side of SignOnSanDiego…

Viral Components: None of the multimedia blogs and videos (besides The Street Blog) has viral features/components available. Ie: digg, stumble, send to friend, etc. There’s no rating system for users to rate videos or blogs. There is a commenting system on blogs – but there is no conversation on these posts. How can we attract readers to comment and generate some rich content on these blogs? I looked at each post and there is no “leave a comment” button. This could be a reason why there is little to no activity on these posts.

Viral Components from CNN.com

Community: The Spanish site www.mienlace.com looks nice! The continuity and organization of content is much more inviting than SOSD. The fact that SOSD has included the Hispanic population in their efforts is significant and I’m very happy to see the commitment to this community. The newsletter offers the option to personalize which is a plus for the choosy reader. SignonRadio offers the ability for live streaming. There’s also weekly sports, politics chats which is an interactive way to keep the community engaged and coming back.

Entertainment Guide on MySpace

Other Social Features: Wiki access – San Diego bands is a really great way for local musicians to keep in touch, promote their tours and answer community questions. The only problem is that NOBODY is using it. There are NO tags listed, no entries, no comments, etc. This area could be a really great resource for locals & bands if it was actually leveraged. Why is nobody editing this?

Side Note: A funny (yet frustrating) note was after I wrote this section’s review I realized a day later that I wanted to include a screenshot of the page. Little did I know this would be no simple task. To my surprise I couldn’t find the damn wiki for the life of me. Where is this wiki? Why is it so hard to locate? How did this happen? So many unanswered questions… maybe this is why nobody is contributing content to the wiki section. Needless to say, you all don’t get a screenshot in this section.

4 Site Fixes to Do Now:

  1. Add in viral components for videos and blogs (Street blog does include social bookmarks) like digg, stumbleupon, reddit, del.icio.us, and facebook
  2. Include text or button under each post to “leave a comment” – make it obvious for the reader
  3. If you truly want to stay on MySpace – nurture and grow the community a bit more. Answer comments & messages immediately. Provide some REAL value and uniqueness on this page with an events calendar, VIP announcements, underground band tours, etc.
  4. Make the wiki an obvious feature on the site. This could take off and become a very important lead generation, seo tactic & community element – but it’ll never get there if nobody can find it.

Technology 1 Star

Web Standards: No. If you validate your code it will make it easier for:

  • Search engines to index your web pages
  • Pages to load faster
  • Make your pages accessible for other devices that surf
    the Web
  • Checking coding errors by running your pages through a
    validator

W3C XHTML & CSS InvalidXML/RSS Feeds: No.As stated above you have to fill out a massive form before subscribing to the RSS feed.I’ve never heard of such a thing and the reader needs to be fixed. And once it is I can bet the RSS subscription conversions will increase substantially.

RSS Form

Analytics: Yes. SignOnSanDiego is using Google Analytics. This is a great way to keep track of who your visitors are, where they’re coming from, what pages they access the most, how long they’re staying on the site, where the drop off pages are and what conversion points are failing or thriving.

SEO: SignOnSanDiego has title/meta data but there are way too many keywords. WTF? Keyword tags should contain less than 250 characters. UT is using: 2,300!!! The meta keywords tag allows you to provide additional text for crawler-based search engines to index along with your body copy. However most crawlers now ignore the tag. This means there is no reason to have that many keywords. It’s wasted space in your code.

Browser Compatibility: Mobile, Firefox, IE

Site Search: SignOnSanDiego offers on-site search which can be categorized into businesses, web, entertainment, etc. – if you spell the keyword wrong UT offers suggestions for the correct spelling, which is nice.

3 Site Fixes to Do Now:

  1. Correct errors listed on XHTML and CSS errors
  2. W3schools & W3C are great resources for proper code standards
  3. Compress the meta data to 6 -10 page specific keywords. Keep it short and get rid of misspelled words

Functionality - 1 Star

Design: The design looks like a patch work of different styles and is a bit choppy because the background color blends in with the topics – very hard to differentiate the transitions between content, ads and blank space.

Space Between Sections

Navigation: There are 3 navigation points above the fold of the homepage…three!? So many navigation points make it extremely confusing for the visitor to figure out the flow & focus of the page (especially first time visitors). Also across various sections of the site there are several different navigation points. I have four shown below. This needs to be cleaned up from a usability standpoint.

Entertainment Navigation
Entertainment Navigation

Homepage NavigationHomepage Navigation

Jobs Navigation
Jobs Navigation

Today’s Paper Navigation
Today’s Paper Navigation

Sitemap: SignonSanDiego has a site map. One of the oldest hypertext usability principles is to visualize the structure of the information space to help users understand where they can go. On today’s Web, site maps are a common approach to facilitating navigation.

Features: There are so many sections and features on the homepage – I am so confused when I get to the site…what am I supposed to do first? Nothing is obvious to me.

6 Site Fixes to Do Now:

  1. Prominently show the user what to do on the homepage (newsletter, rss feed sign up, commenting). These features would also offer a great conversion point which gets a user to an ultimate end goal on the site.
  2. Create highly visible buttons and points on the site that users automatically know to click
  3. Darken the background color with lighter boxes to break up the spaces for each topic. This will help create a more stylized and organized feel to the page.
  4. Update the weblog page to the newest design! The logo/style/template of the site changes from homepage to weblog.signonsandiego.com. The weblog page still uses the old template from 2005! Eek!
  5. Differentiate between content and ads
  6. Provide consistent navigation throughout the site. Condense the extra navigation points into one focused navigation. What’s the differentiation for the various colors of the navigation?

Overall - 2 Stars

Overall Score – 2 Stars out of 5

Brand Strategy – 3 Stars
Social – 2 Stars
Technology- 1 Star
Functionality – 1 Stars

Conclusion

Overall the site needs a face-life. It’s great that the site offers content for all varieties of readers – entertainment, blogs, news, sports, etc. However there’s a lot happening on that first page – which is a bit overwhelming! I would recommend cleaning up the space by creating sections for related content. Take a look at CNN.com – even just a simple blocked off section/box on the site for related content keeps it clean and organized. They even have room for ads that aren’t obtrusive or annoying. I can scroll through the homepage and can find, for example, the blog section very easily. Even though it’s below the fold – that’s ok – it’s about keeping these features prominent and cleaned up so anybody can find them.

Another huge issue is the number of varying navigation points the site has. It looks like as SignOnSanDiego.com grew they hired different designers to work on the different sections. This creates a varying design across the site. There is no continuity between pages – a well designed template that can be used site-wide would create a much richer user experience and make many designers happier. :)

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14 Responses

  1. Apr 29 2008
    NextInstinct

    SoSD should send you:

    1)Flowers

    2) a thank you card

    3) A significant stipend.

    Well done review by Sarah Carr.

    I’d love to see comparative analytics 3, 6, and 12 months out if
    those changes were implemented.

  2. Apr 29 2008
    Nicole McCleaf

    I used to have SignOnSanDiego.com as an RSS feed on my Google homepage for some local news. They barely ever updated their headlines, in fact I sent two emails to them complaining about the importance of fresh content, but nothing ever changed. I was forced to delete them from my feed for a more up-to-date news source. Not only do they make if difficult to sign up for RSS, but once you do it’s never updated.

  3. Apr 29 2008
    Melani Gordon

    Great post. You took the words right out of my mouth on the ’4 different navigation styles.’ Keep us all posted on if the SignOn Team comes across these suggestions!

  4. Apr 29 2008
    Andrew

    …and get rid of those damn popup windows!

  5. Apr 30 2008
    Vandy Paseur

    Thank you for this wonderfully concise critique! I wholeheartedly agree with all of your points and we are addressing many of these issues. I am the SEO person here at SignOn — a very new position — and am chipping away at each one of these as time and budget allows. I will definitely be sharing your comments with all interested parties here at SignOn and am looking forward to their reaction to this assessment of the usability of our website. Let’s see if we can at least get up to a 3 out 5 sooner rather than later. Thanks again!

  6. Apr 30 2008
    GroovyBrent

    Great post! I look forward to seeing this type of analysis for other sites as well. Really gives me some insight as to what we can be doing better as well. Kudos!

  7. Apr 30 2008
    Rich Page

    Great post (I have long thought they needed a redesign), its a great new idea for a series of posts for your blog. I also am doing a similar thing on my web analytics blog (website review and rate). I did a local San Diego website too – chumby.com. Here is my review for that site:
    http://rich-page.com/reviews/website-review-rate-chumbycom/

    Would love to know what you think…

    Anyway, keep up great the great work Digital Telepathy – say hi to Arnold for me!

    Rich Page

  8. Apr 30 2008
    Fumi Matsubara

    As an local SEO and Usability enthusiast, I am very excited about this post. Would love to see that SOSD follows through with the recommendations and also would be interested to see how it affects their site visitor. Well done DT!

  9. Apr 30 2008
    mike

    try and remember that we (the interface developers at SOSD) do not have final say on ANYTHING regarding signonsandiego.com. For example, the many navigation styles, ADS ADS ADS, etc. That being said we are very VERY aware of the issues with SOSD.com and are working as hard as we can to correct them. Its sort of like remodeling an aircraft carrier. First you have to get permission, then you have the daunting task of actually redesigning the look , and functionality, while still servicing 30 million users a month. Its a big deal.

  10. Apr 30 2008
    Colin Leath

    Here’s another SOSD site to review–

    http://www.sdbackyard.com/

    It may address some of your critiques.
    Peace,
    Colin

  11. May 01 2008
    Sarah Carr

    Thanks to everybody who left some insightful comments to this post! It’s great to know how passionate and opinionated the San Diego community is about our news sources and that in the end, we all just want a pleasing experience when visiting them. The point of this UX Review is to surface interface issues that can 1) easily be fixed 2) will change the way users interact and play on the site and 3) make future development & design work easier for SOSD’s internal web team.

    Creating a comfortable and usable space should always be the end goal for every web developer, designer and marketer. The UI of any application will make or break it. Of course functionality is important for an application, but the way in which it provides that functionality is just as (if not more) important. Word of advice: If it is difficult to use then it won’t be used.

    It’s ok if you have to work back and forth a couple times to agree upon a design. Every design agency/department has to go through it. Departments, clients and board members all want to be involved – we coordinate all of these functions of business on a daily basis.

    There are some great examples of companies who went about an entire website redesign even with hundreds of millions of users. In 2006 both Yahoo! and The New York Times redesigned their sites – proof that highly trafficked websites go through redesigns too. It’s about working in phases, using a test service and pushing out sections of the redesign in chunks.

    This is an extension to SOSD to have an open conversation with your team and ours. We are more than willing to assist in your UX efforts for SignOnSanDiego.com and encourage you to take some of our recommendations into consideration.

  12. May 01 2008
    SEO San Diego

    it’s very evident that the signonsandiego’s emphpasis is on ad revenue and not content.

    Oh well, my blogs are guilty of that as well.

  13. May 01 2008
    SEM

    I don’t like sdbackyard.com it’s just shameless advertising sprinkled with content that’s barely readable.

  14. Pingback: User Experience Review: Petco.com | addi+ions blog: Insights from the Internet Obsessed

  15. Apr 14 2009
    RK

    I just wanted to announce (albeit a tad bit late in the conversation here), RSS feeds should now be available and up to date on a regular basis.

    Here is a list of common RSS feeds:
    http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/rss2/index.html