I'm shocked that we've published 500 consecutive issues of TidBITS. Back when we started, I would never have predicted that TidBITS would have enjoyed such longevity. It's a testament to the Macintosh, Apple, and the Internet that we can still find sufficiently interesting topics to cover. Plus, the support you have all provided over the years and the positive response from hundreds of individuals to our TidBITS Contributions program has kept us enthused about continuing. This week, we're pleased to unveil a redesign of our home page aimed at exposing more of our content and adding a few cool new features like a weekly poll. Visit the new home page and follow along to learn what we did and why.
Looking Back -- Although we haven't kept old versions of our Web site around after redesigns (even we're not that retentive), I decided to go back and read about our previous redesigns. In September of 1996, I wrote about our first redesign in "Rethinking a Web" and "Rethinking More of a Web" in TidBITS-344 and TidBITS-345. That effort was also the first time we put conscious thought into how we wanted the site to work. Some of those initial design ideas remain to this day, although modified and updated for modern HTML capabilities like tables.
October of 1997 brought another significant redesign, and in "Four Hundred Issues and a Dynamic Web Site" in TidBITS-400, we unveiled major changes to our entire site, including a new graphical logo, the GetBITS CGI that enabled us to provide permanent URLs to individual articles in our database, and a persistent left-side navigation bar. Our home page has retained that basic look for two years now, an eternity on the Web.
We weren't sitting still during those two years, which brought the release of TidBITS Talk and its Web-based archive that I apparently suckered Geoff into creating (see "TidBITS Talk & the TidBITS Talk Archive" in TidBITS-440) along with a database overhaul that enabled articles to know about related articles and TidBITS Talk threads (see "Adding Context to TidBITS Searches" in TidBITS-477).
Seems like a lot of Web work for an email publication, no? It's true that most people still read TidBITS in email, but we've always been open to alternate methods of distribution. It's not our business to dictate how you should read TidBITS, which is why we publish TidBITS via email, the Web, FTP, and an active channel using Microsoft's now-ignored Channel Definition Format. For those of you using Palm handheld devices, David Charlesworth <firstname.lastname@example.org> has recently begun converting issues of TidBITS into the Palm DOC format, which you can read with the free AportisDoc Reader. David also has a page designed for users of AvantGo's HTML display service for the Palm devices - if you're interested in reading TidBITS instead of that 1982 issue of TIME Magazine at the doctor's office, check out David's welcome conversions.
Expose Yourself to Content -- Our primary design goal with this year's redesign was to increase the amount of timely content on our home page by leveraging the Web in ways that make sense for a publication. The Web works well for browsing and searching through archives, collecting bits of information into sets, and for dynamic data. On our new home page, we focus on these uses in several ways.
The new page design devotes a fair amount of space to the most important piece of work we do - the current issue of TidBITS. The new approach reorganizes information relating to each issue, starting at the top with the issue title, which links to the full issue in HTML format for those who wish to read our traditional "just the text" view of the issue on the Web. Below the issue title come the MailBITS and Articles headlines. You can scan them quickly and follow their links to the individual articles in our article database. We wanted to make it easy for people to read just the articles that interest them without paging through the rest of the issue. And if you prefer reading text to scanning headlines, the abstract of the issue appears next, describing what's inside in a more verbose fashion.
Throughout the week after an issue comes out, we publish short news bits that we've been calling "TidBITS Updates" on our Web site. We did this initially to bring some changing content to our home page to encourage people to visit more frequently. It's proven even more valuable to us as an encouragement to cover the most important events and product releases as they occur, rather than putting everything off until just before the full issue comes out. The new page design includes these updates on the top of the right-hand column in a section titled "Breaking News." Each news headline links to the appropriate section of another Web page that contains the full text of active new reports.
New to the home page is the bottom half of the right-hand column, titled "Dig Deeper in TidBITS Talk." TidBITS Talk is our moderated discussion list that raises additional details about topics raised in TidBITS. TidBITS Talk has proven itself one of the most useful Macintosh mailing lists, thanks to the knowledge, experience, and insight of the TidBITS Talk members, combined with the work we put in keeping discussions on topic and editing messages for relevant content. By displaying some active TidBITS Talk threads from our Web archive on our new home page, we hope that people who don't want to subscribe to yet another mailing list can still benefit from TidBITS Talk or jump into discussions that immediately interest them.
The contents of the right-hand column on the new page shift to accommodate different numbers of breaking news headlines and TidBITS Talk "threadlines." That column has eight slots, up to five of which can be filled by breaking news items. If there are fewer news headlines, you'll see more TidBITS Talk threadlines. And if there are more than five news headlines or more active TidBITS Talk threadlines than will fit in the remaining slots, you'll see "more..." links that display all current items.
Polls and Quizzes -- Beneath our main content area, you can see the main addition to our home page - a weekly poll or quiz. Polls and quizzes are another example of appropriate use of the Web - managing them via email is at best messy. We decided to build poll functionality initially because it can be fun and because we occasionally wanted a way to poll our readership about some hot topic. (TidBITS Talk works well for lengthier opinions and discussions but isn't appropriate for simple opinion surveys.) Once we'd worked out the basics of a poll, we realized that the only difference between a poll question and a quiz question is that a quiz has a correct answer. Building in that addition was easy, and it lets us provide quizzes you can use to test your Macintosh or Internet knowledge.
Asking a poll or quiz question is the easy part. More interesting is the results page you see when you respond to the poll or quiz. The results page restates the question, provides a graph of the responses with both graphical bars, numeric percentages, and raw numbers for each answer, and provides links to TidBITS articles and TidBITS Talk threads that tell you more about the topic in question. We'll also have links to previous poll and quiz results.
I can barely wait to see the responses to some of the polls we have planned, and we're working on a wide range of quiz questions appropriate for Mac beginners all the way up to those who consider themselves Macintosh alpha geeks. We plan to announce each new question in TidBITS and report on the results of the previous week's question, but the only way to participate will be on our home page.
Text Banners -- Although we've never included graphical ad banners on our home page (we did have them within NetBITS issues), we've long had what we informally call "the purple box" at the top of the home page, below the main logo. We use the purple box to alert visitors to interesting projects, events, or books by staff members, including things like our voluntary contribution program and SETI@home team. Our main frustration with the purple box has been that it's difficult to update, and as a result, we don't change it as often as we'd like.
We've come up with a slightly new use for the purple box that fits in with the difference between our sponsorship program and straight Web-based advertising. With the sponsorship program, we're careful about just who we work with because a sponsorship is associative - our reputation rubs off somewhat on our sponsors, and theirs on us. The new design for the purple box helps clarify that relationship by displaying a small icon from the sponsor next to their sponsorship text from the most recent issue. Since we encourage sponsors to offer special deals to TidBITS readers, we hope this redesign will also increase the utility of the sponsorship text for readers without the overhead (and annoyance) of traditional advertising banners.
Looking Forward -- As is often the case with a large project, we came up with additional ideas and possibilities for the redesign that we ended up setting aside for lack of time. Since we're always looking for ways to improve TidBITS, that means we have more ideas to implement in the future. As always, if you have comments or suggestions, send them along. Who knows what we might end up with when TidBITS-600 appears in another two years?