the kdmcinfo weblog

Two Takes on Minimalist Content

Readability

Bad for ads and monetization, great for readers? arc90's "Readability" browser bookmarklet is a potential game-changer. Drag it to your browser's Bookmarks bar, visit any web page, and watch everything but the article you're actually trying to read suddenly vanish. And that tiny text? Suddenly rendered nice and large. When you want the original page displayed again, just click your browser's Reload button.

Readability is much more than a simple ad blocker - it gets rid of all the clutter on a web page and lets you focus on text and images. And since Readability is a bookmarklet rather than a plugin, it works in browsers that don't support add-ons. David Pogue's take on the tool:

Readability addresses multiple unpleasant trends in Web layout these days: type getting too small, layouts getting cluttered and complex, text overlapping with graphics, ads interrupting the flow of the prose, and so on. (You can print or e-mail the cleaned-up page, too.)

Here are before and after shots, showing an MSNBC news article page rendered normally, then with Readability enabled:

Readability1

Readability2

So isn't Readability yet another threat to the already difficult process of news site monetization? To be fair, ads are still displayed when you first visit the page -- you don't get the stripped down version until you proactively request it. But still, a user in the habit of enabling Readability on most pages is going to end up seeing fewer ads than a user without it. A related problem is that publishers lose control of the delivery format -- users and their technology simply override whatever design decisions your publication has made. That realization has got to send yet another chill up the spine of anyone in the already challenged news business (not to mention web designers).

Skimmer

On a separate minimalist note, the New York Times recently released a new variant of their site called "Skimmer" -- a very lightweight, stripped down version designed for readers who move quickly on the web and who are less tolerant of clutter. As of now, Skimmer only alters the way news is aggregated - article permalinks still go to the standard NYT article views. But one can imagine Skimmer evolving to also declutter the content itself.

What I find fascinating here is that NYT is responding to cultural acceleration and the tendency of users to skim news online, rather than read as carefully and slowly as they might when handling the print product.

Skimmer also lets users customize the appearance of the site in innovative ways (click the "Customize" link in the right rail). Note the difference: With Skimmer (in contrast to Readability), the customization of the page is still in the hands of the publisher, not the reader.

More significantly, Skimmer views still include advertising, while Readability does not. By offering users what they want (fast, readable), NYT reduces the temptation users might have to take site display into their own hands. Lesson: If you don't want users applying tools like Readability to your content, consider providing an uncluttered reading experience to begin with. Ads remain in place, and publishers don't lose control.

Thanks to KDMC workshop fellow Matthai Kuruvila for tipping me off to these tools.