Incidentally bad design confuses readers

Robert Kolker has written a hell of a book excerpt for his book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, which comes out tomorrow.  He wrote it for Slate, which is a great place for it to appear, based on demographics, and Slate put it into the DoubleX feature, which is where a lot of material about gender roles and things go (Kolker’s book is about someone who kidnapped and killed prostitutes, incidentally).

But you’d never know it was a book excerpt by the way Slate treated it, and it’s a good example of how bad design can disorient a reader.

The front page display has everything going for it: nice overlines that set the tone, a slammer hed that drives the point of the story home, a picture that’s easily understandable.

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Click into the story and it’s Slate’s typical clean layout. In its first publication this morning, it lacked any context, though.  You came into the top of the story and dropped right into the story without any idea of what it was. The editor’s note about it being a book excerpt wasn’t there until later in the day (kudos to Slate editors for fixing this).

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The section hed didn’t work as an orienteering device, because “DoubleX” is too general to be helpful when the content is this … divergent … from the norm. So readers go into a compelling story but have no idea what the hell it is. Because it’s an excerpt, there are some holes in the narrative, which you’d expect in an excerpt. But you don’t know it’s an excerpt.

It’s not until the reader gets to the very bottom of the story that you get to the explainer. You can see it below but you’ll have to scroll. It’s below the bottom of the story, below Slate’s most viral and the double column of promotional and outlinks. That stuff at the bottom is boilerplate or framing for the most part. It’s something that’s scanned, not read .And it requires two scrolls to get from the bottom of the story to the explanation of what you’re reading.

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Here’s the takeaways:

1. Not having an explanation for non-conforming content before the reader enters the text disorients the reader. It continually raises the question “Why is this here?” and that gives readers an exit point.

2. Putting the explainer that far below the story — two scrolls of link boilerplate away — does a disservice to the author (who’s trying to convert readers into sales via the Amazon link) and to the readers, who may or may not be disoriented as to what they’re reading.