Press Area Usability

by Jakob Nielsen on January 20, 2009

Summary: As 3 studies of journalists show, they use the Web as a major research tool, exhibit high search dominance, and are impatient with bloated sites that don't serve their needs or list a PR contact.

Journalists often work under tight deadlines.

While certainly not a novel insight, this statement leads directly to many of the guidelines for how to design corporate websites that are usable for journalists and deliver the desired PR impact. Most of the PR sections of sites we've studied fail to support journalists in their quest for the facts, information, and contacts they can use to write stories about companies and their products.

Websites must be painfully clear about a company's purpose, products, and services. Websites for high-tech start-ups are particularly notorious for presenting generic, buzzword-filled mission statements that could apply equally well to both their worst competitors and companies producing completely different products.

If journalists can't find what they're looking for on a website, they might not include that company in their story. Journalists repeatedly said that poor website usability could reduce or completely eliminate their press coverage of a company. For example, after having a difficult time using a site, one journalist said:

"… I would be reluctant to go back to the site. If I had a choice to write about something else, then I would write about something else."

Another journalist described what he'd do if he couldn't find a press contact or the facts he needed for his story:

"Better not to write it than to get it wrong. I might avoid the subject altogether."

Many journalists work from home. Many also have old computer equipment and aren't exactly obsessed with downloading the latest software. Thus, non-standard data formats or cutting-edge technologies tend to clog their Internet connections and sometimes even crash their computers. It's therefore wise to ensure that all your press materials work on low-end home computers running software that's 2 versions behind the latest release. We recommend that sites present all press information as simple, standard HTML. Journalists dislike PDF just as much as other users do.

User Research: 3 Rounds

To find out how journalists use websites, we conducted 3 rounds of user research over a period of several years. We conducted most of the sessions in the United States, but also ran sessions in Denmark, Hong Kong, and the U.K. to ensure the international applicability of our findings.

A total of 40 journalists participated in the studies. They worked for a wide range of publications — from large national newspapers and magazines with millions of readers, to mid-sized local newspapers and specialized magazines with 100,000–500,000 readers, to smaller and highly targeted publications. In addition to print media, participants also wrote for radio shows and websites. Some of the participants were staff reporters, while others were freelancers.

We used several research methods:

  • Traditional user testing in a usability lab.
  • Site visits to the user's location, which was often a home office (particularly for freelance journalists).
  • Eyetracking studies, in which we recorded where users looked on the screen.

We tested 42 different websites and their press areas across the 3 research rounds. Sites ranged from huge companies — such as American Airlines, Bayer, and China Mobile — to smaller companies, B2B vendors, startups, non-profits, and government agencies.

Journalists' Information Needs

The Web is one of the most important research tools for journalists. When asked how they would get basic information about a company or organization, all journalists in our studies said that they would begin by doing some Web research.

Most journalists started by searching an outside service — mainly Google, but also traditional services like Dow Jones Interactive and Lexis-Nexis — after which they visited the company's own website. This finding emphasizes the importance of having a clean corporate website with a clearly labeled Press or PR section that can quickly provide information for journalists. It also emphasizes the need to be well represented in external search services (again, mainly Google at the time of this writing).

Journalists are not gullible, and they don't take a company's own word as truth. Indeed, almost all journalists said that press releases were useful only to find out how a company is trying to position itself. We strongly recommend that PR areas have links to external sources, including press coverage; journalists often consider articles from independent newspapers and magazines to be much more credible than a company's own press releases. We've seen similar findings in studies of prospective customers evaluating products on consumer - and business-oriented sites, so links to external press coverage can also help promote sales.

The top-5 reasons journalists gave for visiting a company's website are:

  • Locate a PR contact (name and telephone number)
  • Find basic facts about the company (spelling of an executive's name, his/her age, headquarters location, and so on)
  • Discern the company's spin on events
  • Check financial information
  • Download images to use as illustrations in stories

This basic information must be easy to find and should be cleansed of the marketese and excessive verbiage that smother the facts on many sites. Journalists don't have time to wade through deep, complex navigation trees or sift factual wheat from marketing chaff. In particular, pages must present information in well-organized chunks that are easy to scan. Distracting animations and irrelevant stock photography don't help journalists who are in a hurry to find the facts.

The following example from our eyetracking research shows a journalist reviewing a list of financial statements for American Airlines' parent corporation. Note how the user's eyes skipped the blah-blah text and went straight for the list of items. Also note how most headings got only 1 or 2 fixations: headlines for press releases and other statements must be written so that journalists can grasp the gist by reading only a few words, because that's how they scan such lists. It's worth saying again: journalists are busy and work under tight deadlines. Design your PR pages accordingly.

Eyetracking plot of how a journalist read a website's list of releases

Each blue dot represents one fixation of the user's eyes.
(Bigger dots indicate longer dwell times.)

Facts and Humans

It's amazing how many sites make it hard to find the company's official name——a key fact that journalists often need for their articles.

In general, the more interesting facts you present about your company, products, and executives, the better for PR. Journalists look for facts they can use in their stories. Our study participants were much more excited about genuine information than about marketing claims, which they immediately discarded.

For example, here is one journalist's take on some of the BMW site's product information:

"This is actually more precise information. This is not a sales pitch. This term, ‘crumple zone,' I would find use for in my article… About the lights, these are all high-tech things that I think readers would find interesting. Those are the kinds of specifics I would be looking for."

The following gazeplot from our new eyetracking study shows a journalist reading a press release on TNT's website. Note how the journalist focused on the facts in the initial bulleted list and the second table. The journalist hardly read the concluding paragraphs and mostly ignored the first table, which was not as interesting.

Eyetracking plot of how a journalist read a press release
Gazeplot of a journalist reading a press release.
Each blue dot represents one fixation of the user's eyes.

Sites also must offer a simple way to contact a live human being in the PR department. Although a website can answer many basic questions and provide great help, journalists almost always want to talk to a person, too. Following are quotes from 2 journalists who had a particularly difficult time finding a PR contact and financial information:

"I'm sure I saw an E-mail us, but I forget where it was. I never know if someone is reading the e-mail. It's not uncommon for me to have a deadline today, and I wouldn't use e-mail if I needed it today. I would go without a quote from [this company] ."
"My momentary frustration, I like to think it will not spill over into my story. But it makes me wonder about the competence of the people in the company. You know journalists use the site. Makes me think someone is being evasive, or that they are incompetent."

Clearly, the ability to find information on a PR site has a strong impact on journalists' impression of the site and thus on the way they perceive the company.

Changes in PR Usability

Because we conducted our research over several rounds since 2001, we can compare the situation in the past with today's state of affairs. In doing so, we found 4 main changes:

  • Better design. Professionally managed corporate websites now comply with more usability guidelines and are thus less likely to make the worst blunders on their PR pages. Although sites are still far from fully meeting journalists' needs, they're not as bad as they used to be. As a consequence, journalists today are more successful than in the past at getting the information they need. The biggest improvement relates to their most critical task: finding the PR contact's telephone number.
  • Increasing search dominance. In our early research, journalists were evenly split between going directly to a company's website and using a search engine first. Today, journalists tend to use search as their first step. This is similar to the trend we've seen for regular users, who also rely more on search engines.
  • Improved user technology. Journalists' computers are now much less likely to crash because of PDF or other non-Web media files. Technology has definitely stabilized to some extent. However, we still recommended that you avoid PDF for press releases and most other PR information because the format annoys users.
  • Embrace of multimedia (in concept). Journalists today better appreciate video, webcasts, and other multimedia. Their main complaint, however, is that multimedia content tends to be harder to use and to contain superficial information. Companies clearly need to work harder to turn "new media" into "useful media."

A further change is that PR usability requirements have increased substantially. The new edition of our report contains 103 design guidelines; the first edition had only 32. The earlier guidelines still hold true, so to some extent little has changed in terms of journalists' basic needs. But, beyond the basics, designers have to get many more details right for a website's PR area to be up to snuff.

Commenting about a site that wasn't up to snuff, a journalist from one of our studies summed up a feeling expressed by many others:

"It behooves the company to make their website easier to use. You immediately begin to hate the company when it's not."

Ultimately, PR-related usability comes down to a simple question: Why spend a fortune on outbound PR (trying to pitch journalists) when you neglect simple steps to increase the effectiveness of inbound PR (satisfying journalists who visit your website)?

(Full report with usability guidelines for designing the PR section of a corporate website is available for free download.)

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