A look inside the first look

On the recommendation of a reader, I spent some time tonight poking around the Daily Telegraph‘s weekend advice (or “agony aunt”) column, “Pillow Talk,” which is written by TV personality Graham Norton.  This post is a peek at the process I go through pretty much every time I visit a new column for the first time.  Since I lack fancy, eye-tracking software, we’ll all have to settle for poorly (but colorfully) annotated screenshots (thanks, Google Docs Drawings!)

1) The first look:

Looks like.....a newspaper website

If I can find the RSS feed and I don’t have to register to read, we’re off to a good start.  Of course, I won’t actually subscribe until I’ve read further, and sometimes you don’t know if you’ll suddenly be forced to register when you click on your 6th article or something, so both of these details will likely need to be attended to again.

2) Choosing a column

If you didn't know what Graham Norton looked like before, you sure do now! Apparently, he prefers to dispense advice from the red carpet.

Eeee.   There could be major improvements to how the metadata for each column is displayed.  Sometimes the details of the column are summarized in the headline, sometimes in the sub-head, sometimes not at all.  I don’t at all like the sound of “Graham Norton’s Problem Page” (what does that mean?), and we certainly don’t need to see the same mugshot over and over and over….and over.

All of the redundant information makes it hard to pick out what you do want to know: does this link go to the column about drunken in-laws, or to the one about bosses who clip their toenails at work?  And, it just looks sloppy.

3) Scrolling down the page….

I'll take 50 pictures of Graham Norton over one of this creepily friendly, so-called Junior Doctor with stethescope any day, thanks.

4) Keep scrolling: more of the same

Oooh, a different picture!

So, the top half of the page featured “recent” columns, while the bottom half of the page gives us, presumably, older columns.  The same problems persist here: where can I consistently and easily see what the column is about this week?  And why are there seven more repeated pictures of the columnist?

5) The first letter!

Was it Lou Gherig who said that every game he played was some child’s first time watching him?  Well, columnists, the same is true for you: every advice column you write is someone’s first time reading you.  For my first look at Graham Norton’s work, I simply picked the most recent column.  It turned out to be a good one!

Throwing a bag of frozen peas at the ground sounds incredibly satisfying: all the sensations of smashing something, without any of the consequences!

While we’re here, take a look at the sidebar: more confusing metadata!  Two links that say nothing but “Graham Norton’s Problem Page”–surely they send you to different columns, but you can’t tell without clicking on them–and one to “Pillowtalk,” with a helpful summary–though it’s the first time we’ve seen the name of the column used, except at the top of the homepage.

6) Graham Norton’s reply:

All in all: good show! And not even a single recommendation to seek counseling.

7) There were two more letters in the column, so I read those as well.  Three letters is pretty generous for a column (though maybe not so much for a weekly)–I approve.  But I was sad to see the following pattern emerge:

Exhibit A:

Linda J. was concerned about her 15-year-old daughter's weight gain

Exhibit B:

Poor James T. seemed to think that a co-worker he'd spoken to a few times was likely to leave her fiance for him

Nary a clever pseudonym to be found.  Sad!

8 ) But how do I submit a letter?  Sometimes this is impossible to find, but Pillowtalk makes it easy.  At the bottom of each column, we find:

Wait, what's that about champagne?

So, they’re either encouraging wildly fantastic fake letters, or they’re going to send someone a bottle of bubbly for having the most pathetic, traumatic life in Great Britain.  Hmm.

9) Rinse and repeat with a generous sampling of columns available online!  This is where I’ll take note of whether or not I’m eventually forced to register, and decide if I want to subscribe to the feed.  And it all comes full circle.

What do you look for in your advice column (or newspaper or magazine) web interface?  At what point does “so annoying to use” trump “fun to read”?

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2 responses to “A look inside the first look

  1. Thanks for sharing how and what you look for!! Fun

  2. Thanks! It was fun to break down the process with a new column.

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