This is What The Digital Reader Could Look Like Next Year

For the past few weeks I have been exploring  the idea of making radical changes to this blog.

After looking at a few hundred WordPress themes, I've found one that makes the single radical change I wanted without affecting anything else. But before I switch blog themes, I thought I would show you what it looks like and get some feedback.

It looks something like this:

This is What The Digital Reader Could Look Like Next Year blog maintenance

The new theme is called Blogsonry. It's a daughter theme to the stock WP twenty thirteen theme I am using now, and for the most part it looks exactly like my existing blog theme - just with a new home page. Most of the other pages, including the posts, will look exactly like they do now.

The Blogsonry theme adds a tile-like layout to the front, category, archive, and tag pages of the blog.  Popularized by Pinterest, the technical name for this layout concept is Masonry.

I've liked the concept ever since I saw it on a few blogs starting last year. It makes it easier to scan all of the posts on a page (but it also makes it harder for me to place ads on the homepage). And now I finally have a way to adopt it myself with minimal effort.

I know it's different from what I have now, but I think this is one of those cases where it's time to recognize that the old way has hung around for so long not because it was a good idea but because it's simply the way things have always been done.

This new way is better, I think. What do you think?

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: He's here to chew bubble gum and fix broken websites, and he is all out of bubble gum. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills at the drop of a hat. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

39 Comments

  1. neuse river sailor30 December, 2014

    It’s the content that counts, and whatever format you use, I’m sure that won’t change. Regardless of the format, your loyal readers will stop by a couple of times a day to see what you have to say. I think the masonry concept looks good. You try it and if it works maybe I’ll try it on my site – ha ha!

    Reply
  2. steven shytle30 December, 2014

    1st request is keep RSS feeds, then I don’t care what the format is. I think the current design/layout is perfect, as single column is my favorite. I think tiles are inefficient.

    Reply
  3. Feda30 December, 2014

    That layout is to “busy” and crowded for my taste. I like the current layout much better.

    Reply
  4. JD Ogre30 December, 2014

    “I know it’s radically different from what I have now, but I think this is one of those cases where it’s time to recognize that the old way has hung around for so long not because it was a good idea but because it’s simply the way things have always been done.”

    And it’s “always been done” for a reason – because an ordered, vertical list is the best way to present stuff like this.

    This trend of tiling elements (usually with giant buttons) in order to fit things on mobile screens is definitely ruining the Web.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder30 December, 2014

      And it’s “always been done” for a reason – because an ordered, vertical list is the best way to present stuff like this.

      Do you have any testing data to show that it’s the best way?

      I ask because I know that the reason that was adopted way back when was because of technical limitations. There are a lot of good ideas common into use now which weren’t easy to do 4 or 5 years ago, so they’re only now really getting tested for the first time.

      Reply
  5. Mackay Bell30 December, 2014

    I used to check out Boing Boing everyday. But then they changed from a vertical list to kind of hybrid tiling thing and after a couple days I just stopped cruising it. I haven’t gone back for months.

    There, the issue was the feed was on one side and then they (randomly?) put (supposedly) featured content on the other side. The problem was the page got confusing and every time I would see the same featured article and then have to remind myself to check the feed. It was annoying, particularly because the featured articles almost aways were things that didn’t interest me.

    If you’re going to tile, but everything moves down consistently, maybe that is okay. But I’m not fond of a Re/code situation where I have to search to figure out what is new.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder30 December, 2014

      I’d never seen Re/code’s homepage or the latest version of the BB homepage (I use the RSS feeds). Holy moly, those are messy. Another one which is almost as bad is Geekwire.

      Mine is going to look simple and basic in comparison (even if I figure out a way to insert ads). Heck, I could add a sidebar (see Liliputing) and still have a cleaner design.

      Reply
      1. Mackay Bell30 December, 2014

        All I would say is that if you change it, and get too many complaints, monitor the traffic and be ready to go back. I love this site.

        Reply
        1. Nate Hoffelder30 December, 2014

          To be perfectly honest, one of my NYRs is to never look at my traffic stats again. I was obsessing over them not growing fast enough, and I find I’m much happier now that I have no idea what they are.

          Reply
  6. dave30 December, 2014

    Nate, it seems to me like a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Would the change in some way make things simpler for you? If so, that’s a good reason, but if not then I think what you have now works perfectly and I would vote for keeping the status quo.
    But whatever, your blog is a Great resource and I’ll appreciate it in whatever form you choose.

    Reply
  7. Kevin30 December, 2014

    How would this appear to mobile users, who don’t have the space for 3 columns?

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder30 December, 2014

      It’s a responsive design, so on smaller screens it is reduced to two columns and then one column.

      Reply
  8. Hrafn30 December, 2014

    I tend to find multi-column formats distracting, and somewhat of a pain to navigate (after scrolling down to read the bottom of one column you generally end up having to scroll back up to read the start of the next).

    They’re okay (but still hardly optimal) for headlines-only presentation (acting essentially as a table-of-contents), but not for content.

    My preference would be for something similar to the current (with perhaps some facility for wider columns on a wider screen (the blog currently uses 1/4 of my screen width).

    Reply
  9. karen30 December, 2014

    I like the proposed theme… go for it!

    Reply
  10. Jurgen Snoeren31 December, 2014

    For me, the current format works. I just visit, scroll down and scan the new entries until I hit the last one of my previous visit. For a blog, this is ideal. I understand your itch to change – you’ve been working with the same design for a while, after all. But why change a winning formula?

    But I also realise I don’t want this blog to change because I like it this way and am used to it. Users are conservative in that respect. I’m sure I’ll get used to the new lay out as well (although the fiasco of BB is a good example of how one can take things too far; I’d like to add Slate as well – never read it anymore, can never tell what is what…).

    Reply
  11. Syn31 December, 2014

    I like it.
    It looks like it is easy to scan what’s new. I usually scroll down to the last article I read then scroll up until I’ve read the last thing Nate put up. I like the new one, seems like it might be tablet friendly too Nate.

    Reply
  12. Richard Adin31 December, 2014

    Nate, I admit I’m no designer and I haven’t changed my blog’s look since its inception (I’ve had no complaints about its look and a few compliments), but I vote to stay as you are. Your current theme is easy to read. I find the tiled look to be annoying and distracting and eventually I stop going to those sites.

    Here’s the thing: What is the purpose of your blog? If your current theme is fulfilling that purpose, why change? If it is not, then is the theme the problem or the content? I do not think you gain readers because of theme choice but you can lose readers because of theme choice.

    Reply
  13. MizzBee31 December, 2014

    Mr. Nate, to paraphase James Brown, Please, Please, Please bring back the puppy. No, I have no pets and am afraid of dogs and dolls of any kind, but that little dog was cute and I miss him. See ya in 2015. Happy New Year!!

    Reply
  14. Rob Siders31 December, 2014

    FWIW, Web sites such as UserTesting.com and http://www.usabilitysciences.com/blog both use a vertical scroll for their blogs. It’s probably not an accident.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2014

      I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.

      That is not a responsive website, and it feels to me like it hasn’t been updated for a number of years. Also, the colors they are using in the sidebar aren’t good for readability.

      Reply
      1. Rob Siders31 December, 2014

        Those blogs are responsive, as they both, you know, respond to changes in viewports and display content accordingly. Your current theme is responsive, as well.

        And, no, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But I do think we can make reasonable assumptions about what organizations that spend considerable resources to study user interaction do as compared to what a freelance blog theme designer does. Incidentally, here’s another blog that uses a vertical scroll to present its content: http://mrwweb.com/blog/

        Look at the blog for A List Apart. Collectively speaking, ALA knows more about Web design and user interaction than pretty much anyone else (http://alistapart.com/blog). If anyone was gonna get fancy with the way it delivers content, it’d be ALA. But they use a vertical scroll.

        The point of all of this is that masonry-style sites are best used with showcase content—photography/art/design portfolios, product catalogs, analytics, etc.—rather than text. Blogsonry is easy on the eyes, but I don’t think it’s right for text content.

        Reply
        1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2014

          That usability site is not responsive – not for me, browsing on Chrome.

          And while you say that a vertical scroll is the ideal, here are a few successful blogs that don’t have the traditional scroll:
          http://www.liliputing.com
          http://www.bookriot.com
          http://www.ebookfriendly.com

          Reply
          1. Rob Siders31 December, 2014

            Just because other blogs are doing something doesn’t mean it was a good choice. Ebook Friendly is primarily a showcase blog… infographics, meme-type images, etc. That it has text content doesn’t change what it is.

            Liliputing’s top two entries are blog view. Older entries are tiled. Doesn’t mean it was a good choice.

            Book Riot’s tiled site works because they make very good use of billboards… graphic content that acts as the showcase for the text content. It’s a well-thought-out and implemented way to adapt the content to the visual… it’s part of a larger content strategy. Unless you’re planning on making nice billboards for each story, then it’s probably not going to work well here.

            I tested both usability sites in Chrome and they’re responsive. They also respond to tablets and phones.

            Reply
            1. Nate Hoffelder1 January, 2015

              “Unless you’re planning on making nice billboards for each story, then it’s probably not going to work well here.”

              I’m not going to make the billboards myself but I was planning to use more colorful pictures from Flickr. Is that a workable substitute, do you think?

  15. Martin Lake31 December, 2014

    I love the blog for the content – it’s an indispensable read for me. But try the new format and see how people respond – hopefully you’ll get new readers as well as keeping the old. One thing I would like to see is an easy link to the Morning Coffee. (Or am I just never unable to find it on the old blog?)

    Happy New Year, Nate, and keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder1 January, 2015

      There is no easy link to the links posts, no. I’d add one but I’m not sure where I’d put it (maybe an icon bar integrated into the menu bar).

      Reply
  16. Reader31 December, 2014

    I prefer the current format.

    Reply
  17. nanbush31 December, 2014

    Digital Reader is one of my daily must-reads. It comes up via gmail, and I read it there. No icons in sight; the content is all in text, right in front of me. Takes maybe five seconds to read the titles, then click over to Morning Coffee. I have not needed to hunt for anything, so I’m happy and will stick around.

    The proposed new theme strikes me as being more about design (and quite possibly owner’s ennui–speaking from experience) than about actual reader usability. Quite honestly, I hardly ever go to your website, because you have so thoughtfully given me what I need on my own gmail screen. No bells, no icons, no boxes, not even color–and that’s just fine for my purposes.

    Washington Post has just made a similar design move, and now the online version is all white space and photos, and it’s impossible to take a quick look at the headlines. If they don’t find a fix, I won’t be renewing my subscription. Content is everything.

    As design goes, I like the cleanness of Blogsonry, and if it works for you, give it a try. You work hard, you need something that makes you feel good about the output. But I need to whisk through my email list efficiently. If my eyes have to go hunting through a lot of space-consuming icon boxes simply to find the content du jour, I probably won’t.

    Thanks for your work.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2014

      “quite possibly owner’s ennui”

      I would describe it as burnout more than ennui, but it is there.

      Reply
  18. Micah Bowers31 December, 2014

    I like it.

    Reply
  19. Maria (BearMountainBooks)31 December, 2014

    It’s all about the content. If you’re bored, create yourself a nice avatar so your comments are easy to see in the comments thread. :>)

    Happy New Year!

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2014

      I was also thinking of changing the name to Ink, Bits, & Pixels, but I was talked out of it.

      Reply
  20. Russ31 December, 2014

    I usually have my fonts set pretty large so I can read the text. I’ve noticed that many of these tiled themes break horribly or show so little content when viewed with larger fonts that I usually look for an alternative site.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder31 December, 2014

      I keep mine set at 125% in Chrome, and that’s what you see in the screenshot.

      Asking as one person with bad vision to another, what setting do you use?

      Reply
  21. Syn1 January, 2015

    I like change. I like being able to see most of the stories at a glance without all the scrolling. I think it will be great Nate, but in the end, its your site. Go for it if it floats your boat. I’m going to keep reading you either way. 😀

    Reply
  22. Name (required)2 January, 2015

    With BoingBoing the solution is simple. Just bookmark
    http://boingboing.net/page/1
    and enjoy.

    Please Nate, pretty please, do not turn your blog to another BoingBoing or The Verge site.
    People read your site on a variety of devices and with a small screen tiled main page doesn’t work that well.

    I was extremely upset when BoingBoing redesigned their site AND refused to listen to annoyed readers. I visit The Verge much more seldom than I would if they stuck with a simple “list” theme instead of the tiles they use.

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder2 January, 2015

      Thanks for that link to Boing Boing; I hadn’t thought of looking for that page (god bless stock WP features).

      And this tiled design would work on small screens; it’s responsive and would show only a single tile.

      Reply
  23. Bill2 January, 2015

    Nate,

    I’m on the fence about that new look. It does give easier access to recent blog posts, but seems to encapsulate everything into smaller and smaller chunks of information. The trend with this these days seems to reduce attention span, something I have less and less of lately.

    I visit a math blog site frequently which uses the same format. Trouble is none of the blocks has any date on it so you never know how “current” the post is. Maybe yours will maintain the post’s date. I hope so…

    See here:
    http://www.numbersandshapes.net/

    Bill

    Reply
    1. Nate Hoffelder2 January, 2015

      I hate it when blogs go dateless. It gets even worse when you know they’re shuffling posts on the front page.

      Reply

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