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Chicago Sun-Times

Naveed Usman

March 05, 2019

Staying relevant in a rapidly shifting media landscape.

How can a big-town newspaper’s website deliver “all the news that’s fit to print” while striving to be the go-to local news source for readers in hundreds of different communities?

The Chicago Sun-Times has provided Chicagoans with daily local news coverage since 1948. As one of the city’s two leading newspapers, the paper in more recent years had extended its local coverage to 300 communities in and around Chicago and was available both in print and online.

The Challenge

The Sun-Times had rapidly expanded its reach; the problem was, its existing website, SunTimes.com, wasn’t accommodating that growth. With more coverage came less cohesion; the homepage was cluttered with news items and poorly organized; stories got buried, images were slow to load, the navigation was cumbersome.

As more and more people abandoned newsprint in favor of web-based news sources, these inconveniences became a mountainous predicament for the Sun-Times as online readership sagged.

A re-invention of the old site was certainly in order and, like everything in the high pressure, deadline-driven world of journalism, it had to happen fast! The Usman Group team stepped up to the challenge. We had just two weeks to assess the problem and create the solution.

Our Strategy

A great news site allows readers to easily find exactly which news story or editorial they’re searching for at a glance. As the Sun-Times site was, visitors were greeted with a homepage overwhelmed by a crowd of headlines and columns. With their 40+ branches feeding into their home site, tidy organization posed a real challenge.

Our team tackled that issue by examining what was working for their competitors. Then, we developed a page hierarchy informed by a comprehensive website and analytics audit. Heat mapping core legacy pages identified popular page elements, sections and categories as defined by the user. The website analytics audit exposed the road most traveled by SunTimes.com‘s various visitor preferences. We mapped the users’ navigation through the site, which pages were likely to be visited, when, and how long visitors typically stayed on each page. These discoveries gave us crucial insight into the way their average visitor might envision their ideal experience on the site. This was a great beginning point for designing the new site’s layout.

The site’s most frequently visited pages weren’t given any visual priority over the others on the homepage, making them rather difficult to find. To remedy that, we created a new design that featured prioritized categories in a clearly laid-out grid across the homepage. Subcategories were more subtly displayed. A “Breaking News” banner was also added across the bottom of the fold to accommodate the critical significance of timely news updates.

To ensure that the new designs were applicable to each branch, we worked in real time to develop several different structural and design concepts before making final decisions. Throughout the process, a surplus of 30 templates were created for various sections of the site, insuring that every detail and its performance quality were accounted for.

“The Usman Group was able to bring to life the concept of a global template structures which set the groundwork for all online products for Sun-Times Media and drastically optimized the online publication’s performance.”

– Stephanie Pelletier, former director of digital applications, Sun-Times Media Group

Designing a stunning template isn’t all glamour and imagination. There are a lot of sticky factors involved in making those stunning designs actually work in the wild. The particular obstacle in this case was that the existing site’s code foundation was not conducive for streamlined global additions and edits from the Sun-Times’ many news branches.

We adhered to well-formed documents, or Standards Based Design, in developing the site structure. The product is a website that performs well and looks great (renders as intended) in all the major web browsers. Employing these standards ensures compatibility with all current web technologies.

To show off all this gorgeous design work, we also worked hard to make sure that SunTimes.com could land itself a spot in any relevant web search. So we included Optimized Content Delivery in the redesign. To do this, the content was laid out like a well-formed document, speaking the search engine’s language to produce a more efficient match in a keyword search.

The Results

We knew that the new SunTimes.com website had to breathe and grow, and we designed it to do just that. We ensured that:

  • The designs created could be used in a variety of ways, across branches and news related situations.
  • The templates were tested and validated to meet the Accessibility Standards for Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Templates were tested for cross-browser compatibility and CMS integration, meaning that the designs were “bullet-proof” and accommodated various content amounts.

Working under such a critical deadline, there really wasn’t any option for revisions or changes at the end. Difficult? Yes. Nerve-wracking? Of course. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This challenge called for a new plan of attack. Rather than engage the client in a design critique at the end of the process, it made a lot more sense to collaborate with them right from the start. This way, decisions could be approved before implementation, eliminating a lengthy revision process at the end. We developed standards for faster design and code implementation, allowing us to keep up the pace without sacrificing quality.

As a result, the project stuck to schedule, time was more efficiently spent, and deadlines were met with ease. This rapid prototyping approach also allowed us to immerse ourselves in the project, as an equally-invested member of the team with the client.

Thoughtful design is just the icing on the cake. The final product is one that will stand the test of time and progressing technology (sans a stable business model). But that’s for another post. Our team equipped SunTimes.com for a long life of incessant, trouble-free updates.