Slate: Calculated Refinement or simple inertia

Before we get started, I just wanted to note that my comments are intended to supplement the diagram, rather than vice versa. So be sure to download the PDF version of the diagram to get a full understanding. That said…

No matter how you look at it, publishing content on the web daily is a lot of work. From an information architecture perspective, a daily web publication presents challenges and possibilities no newspaper editor ever had to face. As one of the longest-running daily publications on the web, Slate has dealt
with these issues for years. But it is unclear whether the site’s
current architecture is the result of calculated refinement or
simple inertia.

The architectural decisions here demonstrate one key assumption about the site’s content: the ‘shelf life’ of any given article is about seven days. Navigating to a piece during those first seven days is fairly easy; after that, it becomes very hard.

At a glance, the high-level architecture seems fairly straightforward. But a closer look reveals that the five primary ‘sections’ exist only in the tables of contents. These categories appear nowhere else on the site—not even on the articles themselves. Furthermore, the classification of articles into these
categories only persists for seven days from the date of publication. After that, the section to which a piece belonged is forgotten.

Note the absence of an ‘archive’ area. The only access to articles more than seven days old is through the advanced search page. In place of a browsable archive, Slate offers canned searches by “department” and by author. The author list page works well enough, though such a feature would only be useful in the event that a user already knew the name of the author of a desired piece; but if that were so, the search interface would be sufficient.

The department list page has a greater burden to bear. As the only persistent classification scheme employed on the site, the department list is the only element that can provide the reader with a sense of the range of content and subject matter covered on the site. But the page currently falls far short of this goal. What the user faces here is nothing more than a very long list
that makes no distinction between limited-run features like “Campaign ’98”; occasional, semi-regular features like Michael Kinsley’s “Readme”; and ongoing staples like “Today’s Papers.”

This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that, by and large, the department titles are too clever by half. Even the savviest user could be forgiven for having trouble remembering whether Slate’s roundup of opinions from movie critics was filed under “Critical Mass” or “Summary Judgment.” The cute titles would be fine if the site provided some sort of context for what was to be found inside; as it is, providing a plain list of titles like “Flame Posies”, “Varnish Remover”, and “In the Soup” does little to help readers find specific items or even get a general sense of what the site has to offer.

Letter-sized diagram ( PDF, 41K)

Note: The date on the diagram indicates when the snapshot of the system was taken. Slate may be substantially different now.

Finally, I wanted to find out what sites you’d like to see me diagram in the future. You can post your suggestions here.

Jesse James Garrett is one of the founders of Adaptive Path, a user experience consultancy based in San Francisco. His book “The Elements of User Experience” is forthcoming from New Riders.

Yahoo! Mail: Simplicity Holds Up Over Time

Email was one of the first applications to move to the web, and the first to find widespread popularity among users.

In many respects, email is the ideal web application: it’s an application that people often need access to when they’re away from their “home” environment, and the core user tasks (reading and writing) are easily accommodated with standard HTML interface elements.

As a result, it should come as little surprise that the basic flow of Yahoo! Mail has hardly changed at all since the portal first acquired the RocketMail service in 1997. But rather than offering an outdated solution to the web-based email problem, Yahoo! Mail demonstrates the lasting effectiveness of a simple approach.

The application is extremely conservative with page designs. Almost all user interaction takes place across only three pages: the “message list” folder view, the “message display” page, and the “compose” page.

Another demonstration of this conservative approach is in the site’s error handling. The entire application contains only one standalone error page (the “no account found” page in the login flow), and this seems more likely to be the result of a back-end limitation than a deliberate design choice.

A few awkward spots do appear in the flow. An empty search result set returns a search result page with a “no messages found” message, rather than bringing the user directly back to the query interface to retry the search.

Downloading attachments is a two-step process, which seems like one step too many. The dichotomy between viewing and editing contact information in the address book seems like an artificial distinction whose purpose is unclear. But these are really minor quibbles; overall, Yahoo! Mail is a model of streamlined interaction design.

Yahoo! Mail diagram
Poster-sized diagram ( PDF, 37K) | Letter-sized diagram ( PDF, 100K)

Note: The date on the diagram indicates when the snapshot of the system was taken. Yahoo! Mail may be substantially different now.

Jesse James Garrett has been working in the Internet industry since 1995. In the information architecture community, Jesse is recognized as a leading contributor to the development of this rapidly evolving discipline.