Evaluation of a Major News Website From a Human Cognitive Perspective

In Education, Interaction Design by Ian CarnaghanLeave a Comment

Over the last decade, a shift has occurred in the way many people access, read and watch current events and news.  From the traditional newspapers and scheduled television news programs, we have moved to a more dynamic interactive medium, which dispenses information in a real-time format.  News websites are a fairly young media; however they have evolved exponentially since the late 1990s to the current time.

This article examines a popular news organization’s web presence and evaluates this resource in terms of human centered design and cognition.  It explores the website’s effectiveness of compiling and distributing news information in a way that is easy for humans to comprehend and process.  Much of the focus has been on the main homepage of the website; however other site pages have been taken into consideration adding context to some of the discussion.

CNN.com and Addressing Human Sensation and Sensory Capacities

Human beings have five basic sensory modes which include sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.  Research suggests that other senses exist however for the purpose of evaluating the most common sensory modes associated with web browsing, we will be focusing only on the first three sight, hearing and touch.  There is a great deal of research that indicates websites can be developed and designed in a more efficient way in relation to human cognition.  Some of this research has been examined in this paper to compliment the positions provided on different aspects of cnn.com.

Rational behind CNN’s website layout

Upon first visit to the CNN website, the first noticeable aspect in terms of layout is the sectional approach, or division of categories of information.  On the far left the latest news topics are listed in a somewhat crammed fashion directly underneath a photograph link and segment of one of the current featured stories.  Towards the middle of the home page lies the main featured story photograph, larger than its left column counterpart.  Directly underneath are a series of thumbnail photographs which lead to other written news articles and videos.  On the far right hand side is a site ‘widget’, which provides a series of social networking features as well as additional news and highlights of information, such as current share and stock data.  Further down the page are a series of blocks containing links of information broken into different categories.  These links give the same crammed appearance as the latest news section above.  The main navigation of the site lies in the page header above all of these sections and provides roll-over menu links to various parts of the website.

According to cognitive research, the human eyes tend to see best in the center area of the object or thing they are looking at.  (IDIA 640, 2011).  In the case of CNN’s website it would appear that ‘biologically’ the human eye would focus first on the featured news items on this web page.  If this was the intent of the developers then it would be apparent that this approach could be considered a strength of the website, if that was indeed their plan.   Not only are the featured stories directly in the middle of the screen presented in colorful eye catching images, they also fall directly below the largest image on the site, the main current featured news article.  The overall website is also center justified and in screens with higher resolutions, this is more noticeable.  This has become a more common trend in web development in recent years, moving away from the traditionally left justified layouts.

Focusing again on the center area of the website where the featured stories are displayed, it is apparent that these images and small sub-headings serve to provide a snippet of information for the viewer.  Should they wish to learn more about the story they may do so by clicking the appropriate image.  It appears the designers may have taken into consideration human cognition in the form of developing content (within this section) that enhances visual acuity.  Research indicates that the human eye can take in a limited amount information at once and it is best to reduce this in order to enhance the effectiveness of processing information.  (IDIA 640, 2011).  By using larger thumbnail images, less text and keeping the amount of featured stories in this section to under ten; this in turn serves to increase cognitive processing of the available stories or resources, another potential strength of this website’s design.

Implications of Design and Color Choices

While the demographics of the target users of CNN’s website is not readily available, we can make assumptions that a large number of users would fall into the above 20s category both female and male, with a larger number of the site’s sports page visitors being male.  The overall coloring of the site is predominantly red, which can be assumed more of a branding reason than that of color psychology.  Additionally, on the home page green is used as a visual cue for well performing stocks in the news widget located on the far right hand side.  A large percentage of the male population are affected with some level of color blindness.  It has been proven that the colors red and green can often be misinterpreted by those affected with color blindness.  Since a large population of users of this website are male, it would make more sense to use a different color scheme to include blues and yellows for example.  This tends to show a weakness in the site, however it is interesting to note that the sports pages, which again it would be assumed that it would be frequented more so by males, employs an entirely different blue and grey toned design.  Perhaps the designers took into consideration cognition and the susceptibility of males and colorblindness when they developed the sports pages, or perhaps this was simply a coincidence.

The benefits outlined earlier focused on the ‘featured stories’ aspect of this website, however when we examine the purpose of CNN, we are brought back to the delivery of news.  The main news or latest news items are presented as small links on the right hand side of the home page.  Over twenty links are displayed in what looks like a space of only a few inches.  Eye tracking data has demonstrated that the human eye moves in jumps otherwise known as ‘saccade’.  While an experienced reader can compile information between jumps, inexperienced individuals have more of a problem with this.  Keeping this in mind, the very fact the CNN is a news website, should be a cause for concern when all of their latest news links are so closely crammed together.  This could be argued a weak cognitive design aspect of the website.

At the beginning of this section, various human sensory modes were introduced and so far we have only touched on one, vision or sight.  CNN’s website also caters for other modalities in the form of touch and hearing.  In terms of touch, the interface (in the desktop format) provides for touch equivalents in the form of link rollovers and effects when the user moves the cursor to different parts of the website.  These serve as a visual response and can contribute to grabbing attention in terms of human sensory cognition.  CNN also provide a mobile version of their website which incorporates a more advanced touch response functionality.  The modality of hearing comes into play in the video section of the website.  It was noted that even when the user does not select a specific video and selects only the video menu option from the home page, an advertisement will begin playing immediately, which could provide a negative experience via an unexpected tactile sensation.  The videos section of the site itself has employed a more minimalistic style to the rest of the site, which is advantageous in that not too many modalities are served at the same time, which could cause the user stimulus overload.

Human Perception and CNN.com

Human perception can be influenced in a number of ways.  Three components that are examined next include human sensory, effects of individual prior knowledge and user expectation.  Herrmann et al (2006) discusses human sensation in terms of sensory / perceptual processes.  They go on to describe that these processes can be thought of as links in a chain, whereby if any one fails the end result or overall perception will fail or will be inaccurate.  Sensitivity can often depend on human ability to be able to pay attention to a given situation or set of information.  The average amount of time a human can give any one thing concentrated attention is approximately twenty seconds; therefore it is important to devise methods of maintaining and shifting attention where necessary.

CNN’s website provides a wide variety of choice for visitors.  Their layout of featured stories, mixed with latest news headlines in a variety of different media formats allows for easier shifting of attention to areas of interest.  The large number of choices available to visitors of the site ensures that the visitor has plenty to see.  This unfortunately can also be detrimental to the cognitive processes going on behind the scenes.  With the amount of news items crammed into the home page, there is a high chance of increased distraction from the user perspective.  The human brain is a limited capacity processer and research suggests that most adults can be cognitively active with up to three to five things at any given time.  (IDIA 640, 2011).  This is especially worrying with regard to the crammed news links on the far left hand side of the site.  As the user scrolls down the home page, thirteen news categories, each containing at least seven links each may be more cause for distraction, however it appears the designer’s intent was to keep these additional categories further down the page until the user is ready to review them.

Users or visitors to the CNN website will vary in their experience level both with using web technology as well as familiarity with news media websites.  This will have an impact on automatic and effortful cognitive processing of information.  Automatic processing occurs most of the time and happens when the person involved is not giving much thought to a specific situation.  This type of processing advances with experience analogous to a person practicing a sport who will improve over time.  (IDIA 640, 2011).  Effortful processing on the other hand is a conscious process and one that can only be carried out with effort and attention.  CNN’s website caters for users with little or no experience of navigating an online news resource.  The main navigation menus are consistent along the top and easy to navigate.  It is apparent as noted previously that the homepage has been designed in a way to lure in the user to easy-to-access featured stories, and once ready they can scroll or navigate other areas of the site.  The use of more advanced social networking components or widgets will no doubt benefit those with more experience and familiarity with such tools.

Unfortunately the approach to the perception of prior experience within the CNN website has also revealed a flaw.  Earlier it was discussed that CNN is a news organization and therefore the focus of this website should be news related.  While featured stories are the most eye catching areas of the homepage, latest news headlines seem to be more of an afterthought.  Unless the visitor was experienced with using this website, they may not consider reviewing the tiny latest news links on the far left, or scroll several pages worth of links to get to the articles they are interested in.   Another area of concern is consistency.  Several sections of the website employ a completely different look and feel from the home page, including the videos section of the site and sports pages.  While experienced users will have different expectations and consider the differences normal, new or inexperienced visitors may become disoriented with these unexpected changes, which ultimately will increase confusion and decrease effective usability.

It is difficult to understand the expectations of a ‘typical’ visitor without first taking into consideration other news and media sites on the web.  Most of these types of websites nowadays contain a wealth of news articles, stories and other traditional components of news medium including video and advertisements.  As the web has advanced in recent years, these news corporations have had to adapt and embrace many of the newer social media technologies.

On the surface, CNN seems to well with regards to utilizing the latest in technology.  Many of the articles and news stories include the ability for users to add comments and discuss topics with other readers.  The news videos are easy to find and access and all subject areas are clearly sectioned throughout the site.  A Google search is present on the top right hand corner of the site for those visitors who cannot find what they are looking for by browsing the various categories.  CNN.com seems to meet expectations of the typical news reading visitor to their site.  There is nothing apparent that has been done badly in terms of appealing to the experiences of visitors, many of the features and functionality seem to be in line with other websites in this area.  There is however nothing that really stands out as a major advantage of effectiveness over other news websites in terms of human cognition.  Perhaps this could be considered a drawback in terms of the perception of expectations or perhaps the designers feel the site holds up well as it is, complimented by its well known brand in the news industry.

Human centered design and concluding thoughts

It is difficult to sum up whether or not CNN.com is a good website from a human centered design perspective.  Certainly there are many things the designers have taken into consideration that increase cognitive effectiveness, however as pointed out, there are also shortcomings.  Without a greater knowledge of the designers or management’s goals for their web presence, we are left to draw assumptions based on understanding of expectations of a typical news website.  The direction that CNN are going seems to be more in line with their featured stories and articles which are dominant on the home page, social widgets and a push for more multi-media and video content.

Improvements could be made in terms of cognitive effectiveness as well as a better approach to accessibilities for those who may have learning difficulties or other cognitive issues.  In testing the homepage with Cydia (an online accessibility tool, which checks for Section 508 compliance), the site failed in several key areas.  HTML coding did not pass validation when checked online.  Both of these could lead to unexpected results using assistive technologies such as screen readers, which could in turn lead to a negative experience for the end user.

Finally it seems that small changes, such as improvement in color and tone, increase of font size in certain areas as well as balancing of content within the home page layout could lead to a more enhanced human centered experience.  Over time it will be interesting to see how this site develops and adapts to newer technologies and if the shift will continue towards social tools and applications.  At the present time, CNN have a mixed bag of pros and cons, however overall their website seems to provide an above average human centered design experience based on the issues discussed in this paper.

References

Gallagher, W. (2009).  RAPT.  Attention and the Focused Life.  New York: NY.  Penguin Group.

Herrmann, D., J., Yoder, C., Y., Gruneberg, M., & Payne, D., G. (2006).  Applied Cognitive Psychology A Textbook.  New York: NY.  Psychology Press.

IDIA 640 Human Computers and Cognition (2011).  Class Notes from Dr. Kohl Ph.D.

Cover page image by Thomas Leuthard

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