This is the second piece in our series on the design changes to SQLServerCentral. In this piece, we will look at the changes to the newsletter layout.
The SQLServerCentral newsletter is almost unchanged in the last decade. We have moved the advertisements around a bit, but most of the rest of the newsletter is almost the same as it's been for a long time (you can see an old one here). It was a design that evolved from Andy Warren, Brian Knight, and myself over time, without a lot of thought other than getting something done.
Across the years I've had numerous complaints that it's too long, too much information, the layout is busy and confusing and cluttered. I've heard the TOC is annoying and redundant, I've heard the editorial is buried, and there have been more than a few mentions that the Question of the Day should be moved around.
I've heard that the advertisements are not noticed, and that they are too noticable. Like it or not, the advertisements are important, and they have provided for the growth and support of the site. They are a consideration in any design, though there is a need to not have them dominate.
Lastly, more and more people have been receiving and reading the newsletter on difference devices. Not only smart phones, but also tablets. The rendering of the layout across multiple devices has been challenging.
Initial Design Changes
I have asked for some time to change our newsletter since it is so long and we could probably provide a more enjoyable experience for most people. The initial design changes were a cleaner (IMHO) design that looked better in the preview pane in Outlook for me. It also rendered much better on my smartphone.
We also were looking to separate the advertisements out and increase our flexibility to move the their location around. We increased our number of ads from 2 places to 4, though we often had 5 ads split between to the two spots. Our plan was to stick with a few ads, but vary the location.
The editorial has been tremendous popular in the newsletter over the years (thank you for all the support), and our design moved the editorial to the top of the newsletter, with other content placed below it.
One of the issues with laying out the newsletter is that Outlook doesn't respect CSS very well, causing some of our elements to move in strange ways. I've had issues with the picture in the editorial for years. In trying to ensure that Outlook, by far the most popular client, rendered well, we struggled on many mobile devices (phones and tablets).
Our final design was to limit the width to 600px, which is somehat of a lowest common denominator, but ensure that the newsletter can be easily read on many devices. Since our percentage of desktop reads (opens) against other devices has slipped, rather dramatically actually, the ability to render on other devices is important. We expect to get < 50% of our newsletters read on desktops in the next year.
First, I want to apologize for rolling out the newsletter changes apart from the site changes. I also need to apologize for not being as responsive as I could be. The rollout was delayed a few times, and when it was released, I was busy with other projects and not able to give project my attention. In hindsight, I am glad the site didn't change, and we have placed those changes on hold for now.
The initial complaints around the new design were:
No table of contents
too narrow, with wasted space on many monitors (on the sides)
too much scrolling required (related to the item above)
too many new ads
no question of the day for the previous day.
centered forum headers are difficult to read
forum ordering was strange
picture in the editorial pushed the content too low
All of these are valid complaints, though to be clear, all are also opinions. However strongly opinions are presented, they do not represent everyone's point of view. It is difficult to gauge the percentage of the community that might feel a certain way, and that is part of what this series hopes to help us clear up. Our design ideas and thoughts are also opinions, and we do understand that.
We did have some compliments on the design. The shading for the QOD and the editorial at the top were among them.
Responses So Far
We have made some changes based on feedback. The staff has debated and tested some different items, and we ended up changing a few items.
The Table of Contents is back at the top - This was an easy fix, and I'm sorry we didn't consider this initially. The contents at a glance is a good idea, and without compelling reasons to remove this, I think we'll leave it in place.
The editorial picture has been removed - It was a challenge at times to find a good picture, and it always presented a layout challenge in different clients. As a result, I've removed it, and without any complaints, so I'll leave this off from now on.
Forum layout and ordering - We've fixed the ordering so that we respect the same order on the site, which has newer versions first, with other topics ordered as they are on the site. We've left adjusted the titles and shrunk the font slightly to make the section shorter. If you really use this section, let us know.
Podcasts section shrunk - My poor layout skills designed this initially, and I had someone help us shrink it down, remove some information and in general de-emphasize this somewhat. If you really like the podcasts, let me know as I'm considering ending them soon.
Yesterday's Question of the Day - We added back a link for a few days, but have moved the entire previous QotD back to the newsletter. I like this and want to keep it.
Where do we go from here?
First, I'm open to almost anything. We aren't going back to the old format for a few reasons, one of which is that it was a mess as well. Some of you loved it on big monitors, but we had constant complaints with some clients, and on other devices. No matter what you think, a large percentage of the community reads on a device. It will be a simple majority of the community soon if the trend continues. Keep that in mind.
The complaints, the responses, I'd like to hear what you think. I have a few ideas here as well for moving forward in a few areas.
In terms of width, I do recognize that this can be an issue. One potential solution here is to send multiple newsletters, but in all likelihood this would mean having you subscribe to one of two (or more ) formats. If you chose a narrow, mobile format, you'd get that on your desktop. Some of that is the issues with Outlook and CSS, some is probably technical from our end in that we'd want to set this up in a manageable way.
I'd like to limit the number of advertisements in a newsletter to no more than 5. I believe we have 5 on most days with the book ads. However, I'd like to rotate this among a few other positions so that it isn't always 3 at the top. Good, bad?
One of the things that's been a bit of a complaint over the years if the length of the newsletter. This has real costs in bandwidth as well as processing time for the send. I have debated about making a separate newsletter for the forum information. We might duplicate some information from the primary newsletter, or perhaps just make it a list of forum topics that you can browse.
I have debated offering a couple formats, for example, one that has the current look, and one that might layout the question of the day and articles first, with everything else below? Is there much interest in this?
Let us know what else you think we might do better. I know many people like the current newsletter, but if you have things that would pique your interest or make the newsletter easier to read, let us know.