It might have been the Slate redesign which pushed me over the edge, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just PTSD from Reuters Next. But at this point I will seriously donate a substantial amount of money to anybody who can build a browser plugin which automatically kills all persistent navbars, or “sticky navs”, as they’re also known.
It’s impossible to identify who started this trend, but it has become the single most annoying thing on the news web, recently overtaking even the much-loathed pagination for that title. If you’re reading a story on Pando Daily, then no matter what page you’re on, no matter where you are in the story, the top of your browser window always looks like this:
The Businessweek.com version is even fatter, and adds lots of color:
Meanwhile, if you’re reading a story on Slate, then it all looks perfectly normal until you start scrolling down, at which point the persistent nav magically appears, looking something like this:
These navbars have their differences, but they invariably include a suite of sharing tools, the name of the website you’re reading, and usually some kind of drop-down menu (or, in the case of Businessweek, ten of the things). They take over the most important part of your precious browser real estate, and the only way to make them disappear is to leave the website entirely.
Readers hate these things, for good reasons. Many of them are so badly designed that when you hit the spacebar to scroll down one page, the next couple of lines that you want to read get hidden behind the navbar, and you need to scroll back up to see them. All of them confound intuition: the page/scroll metaphor has become so ubiquitous online that we don’t even think of it as a metaphor any more. The text sits on the page, and when you scroll, the page that you’re looking at moves up towards the top of the window. If something at the top of the page doesn’t move, then that’s just as distracting as looking at an otherwise static page and seeing a single element which does move. It drags your attention away from the thing which you want to be concentrating on — the story — and towards something with no real informational content at all.
A quick thought experiment should suffice to prove just how evil sticky navs are. Suppose that instead of featuring navigational aids, these things instead featured some kind of banner ad. In order to read any story on a site, you’d need to be constantly staring at a page with a sticky unit saying “Drink Coca-Cola” at the top. No editor would countenance such a thing: annoying ads are one thing, but they all at least feature a little “x” which you can click on to make them go away. And yet there’s one kind of branding which seems to be the exception to this rule — and that’s when the brand in question happens to be the very publication you’re reading.
None of this should come as any surprise: we went through all of this back in the 1990s, when some bright spark invented frames. Remember frames? Maybe Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) can help you out:
Sticky navs are just a whiz-bang version of frames, only without the one tiny justification that frames had, which was that they stopped people having to reload navigational elements many times over when they were trying to make their way around a website on their dial-up modems.
So what is the justification for these horrible, intrusive things? The first, and most important, is that they serve a branding function. You know what a brand is, right? It’s a piece of hot metal which is seared into your flesh so that it leaves an indelible mark. Historically, sites used their home page to define themselves in the minds of readers, and would even complain quite vociferously if people dared link directly to articles. Today, however, in a world where site designers like to say that “every page is the home page”, publishers have decided not only that every page must serve the same branding function that the home page used to have, but even that the branding must persist even once you’ve started scrolling down. This does nothing for advertisers, and does nothing for readers, but it tends to make proprietors happy, and that, it seems, is all that matters.
The other reason, which is more insidious, is the way that everybody wants to be an app these days. Some services, like webmail and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), really are apps, at heart, and their websites are full of persistent elements which nobody minds. They’re a frame within which outside information is presented, and in that case persistent elements are fine, even desirable. And as traffic becomes increasingly mobile, publishers try very hard to create an immersive environment for their tablet-based content. Which is fine. People use tablets in a very different way to how they use the web on a desktop or laptop, and page design for tablets should be different than page design for the web. The problem is that designers are creating things which work very well on tablets, and then just porting that app-like experience over to the desktop web, even though no one actually wants an app-like experience when reading a story on their computer. The worst offender here is Quartz, which desperately wants desktop web browsers to behave as though they’re tablets, and which as a result has not one but two sticky navs taking up a huge amount of screen real estate.
So please, publishers, lose your vanity, and kill the sticky navs. If I’m reading a story on Slate, have no need whatsoever to be reminded of the headline at all times — in extra-bold all-caps, to boot. (Stop shouting at me!) If I’m being trolled by Sarah Lacy on Pando Daily, she should want my attention, rather than trying to inform me that there’s a section of her site with video on it. And when I start reading a long story in Businessweek’s beautifully-designed print magazine, and then want to finish it when I’m at my computer, there is no reason at all to hit me over the head while I’m doing so with an incoherent series of colored blocks. If you give me my browser window back, I’ll be much more avid, and much less resentful, when it comes to consuming your content. Which is what both of us really want, right?