Text in HTML is the way to go it seems. But why do people all of a sudden need to go back 20 years in visual themes to read the news? Aren’t those simple websites ugly, and why even make advancements in design if text-based news sites are gonna make a comeback? The reasons lie in our infrastructure and the way it handles traffic during critical life-threatening events. A day or two before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, CNN announced that they created a text-only version of their site with no ads or videos.
The same week, NPR began promoting its text-only site, text.npr.org on social media as a way for people with limited Internet connectivity during Hurricane Irma to receive updated information.
All these text-only sites — which used to be more popular in the early days of the Internet of limited bandwidth and slow connections – are incredibly useful, and as it turns out they go beyond temporary popularity during natural disasters.
If you just need the information, without hassle and added glitter, these websites load infinitely faster, don’t contain any pop-ups or ads or autoplay videos, and help people in remote or disconnected areas with low bandwidth or limited Internet access. They’re also beneficial for people with visual impairments who use screen readers to navigate the Internet. (Related: Designing Journalism Products for Accessibility.)
And they were incredibly well received:
NPR’s text.npr.org is likely the oldest example of a working text-only news site that’s still in existence. It originally launched as thin.npr.org back in June 2005, in response to the September 11th attacks — when many news sites struggled to stay online amidst record traffic numbers — and also to help people who were navigating to npr.org back in 2005 on handheld mobile devices like Blackberries.
Earlier this month, a number of improvements were made to the site (which redirects to thin.npr.org) aimed specifically at low-bandwidth users.
“More recently, our full site [npr.org] has made major accessibility gains,” write Patrick Cooper, NPR’s director of web and engagement, and Sara Goo, the managing editor of digital news. “But as accessible or as fast as you can make your full site —and speed is critical for us — low-bandwidth situations are a different challenge. [Our] improvements focused on those users in particular.”
This year was a text-only win for Twitter, Facebook, and Google News as well. All of them have also started running stripped-down website versions primarily intended for users in emerging markets who might not have access to faster network connections. Earlier this week, Twitter announced that it was now experimenting with an Android app designed to use less data for people with limited connectivity.
Unfortunately, the list of famous names pretty much ends there, because rarely any other large news website offers the same service.
There are many ways that news organizations can improve the ways they serve both low-bandwidth users and people with visual impairments by stripping out unnecessary elements and optimizing different parts of a website.