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Pioneer Press: Optimizing website for … iPad?

Spending as much time reading online as I do, I get persnickity about what designers call the “user experience.” One of the more vexing sites has been the Pioneer Press’s TwinCities.com, which once prompted Twin Cities Business editor Adam Platt to ask if it was “the worst major-newspaper site in the country.”

We’ll leave that provocative question for another day, but at least one new change caught my eye. Like Goldilocks going from too cold to too hot, Twincities.com changed its body-copy font size from fine-print small to grandparent large — in my mind, bypassing “juuuuust right.”

Here’s how the PiPress (left) looks compared to the Star Tribune. Click the image for actual size:

The move had me scratching my head until PiPress tech writer Julio Ojeda-Zapata tweeted, “You’ll like if you’re reading on an iPad.”

Damned if he wasn’t right.

The PiPress text is perfectly sized for iPad reading, allowing you to bypass the paper’s fairly kludgy iPad app.

So is this a case of tablets conquering desktops and laptops … even on websites?

Managing editor Chris Clonts — who’s been a fairly good sport over the years about my nags — replies, “We did consider that. Lots of folks are using the site on tablets outside of our apps. As you’ve no doubt seen, mobile is experiencing fabulous growth.”

Since November, the Pioneer Press has benefited from the Strib’s paywall, and is now run by DigitalFirst, a management company that thinks web/social networking first, print last.

As to my complaints about oversized type, Clonts notes each story has a text-shrinking option. However, there’s no universal setting; you have to do it for every story. He also argues that “at least 59 percent” of Twincities.com visitors use monitors at least 1280 pixels wide, which shrinks the body font’s appearance.

(I’ve checked on a 1920-pixel wide 24-inch monitor and 1280-pixel 19-inch monitor, and they both look huge to me.)

As it turns out, the PiPress body font doesn’t look that much bigger than the New York Times, though the Times puts less spacing between lines of copy.

Anyway, Clonts notes other TwinCities.com changes that “don’t really add up to a redesign, but we hope provide a better experience”:

  • Breaking news more prominent on the home page.
  • Articles now show the time they were posted and when they were updated.
  • The home page shows how long ago a story was updated, rather than merely listing the time (except in the Chrome browser)
  • Altered the font, color and size of article page body and headline type.
“Those are just a few, and we’re receiving near unanimous, unprompted positive feedback so far,” Clonts says. “Our Brian Henderson and the Denver Post’s Joe Murphy have teamed up for many of the changes. You’ll see more in the next few days and weeks. Some won’t be directly noticeable.”
So far, Clonts has not given ground on my biggest non-ad gripe web-design gripe: the creeping — indeed skidding — left-hand “share bar” the follows you down the page. I honestly can’t read the story with this thing desperately begging for my attention (though it disappears if you shrink the window far enough). If the PiPress must, they should fix the share bar to the screen top, a la this.

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