Q.A.: Bettering the Old JEPSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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EDITOR'S NOTE: We asked Mike to critique the old JEP, making suggestions for changes that you will see reflected in our new look. JEP is both a journal and an experimental vehicle, and we are going to heed the advice of experts like Mike. —J.A.T.
Like many of its related print academic journals, the old Journal of Electronic Publishing [formerly http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/econTOC.html] seems to have put more effort into its content than its appearance. One is reminded of the blandness, say, of AEJMC's Educator. Therefore it's hard to say that this site is anything but appropriate for its genre.
There is very little visual design in the old JEP's front page; it is an old-style HTML table of contents. That may be entirely appropriate if the intended audience primarily will be visually and technically unsophisticated academics who will visit the site to read about the latest trends in an alien, visually oriented medium, readers who will not even notice the appearance. But one could reasonably argue that the site will attract the attention of more visually and technically literate academics and professionals, those who might be inclined to underestimate the value and content of such a visually unsophisticated site. Just in case, it would be wise to upgrade the site's appearance and technical sophistication.
Placing so much of the "masthead" information — the publisher, publishing frequency, the mission statement — up at the top of the first page unnecessarily clutters it, taking up space that could be devoted to a more positive first impression. Move it to the end, or bottom, of the first page, or to a colophon page. Concentrate the readers' attention first on what you have to offer in that specific issue, then cover the legal and congratulatory information in a less-important space.
There are some simple ways that the site could be moved up a notch or two of technical and design sophistication levels. Many designers would turn to the now-cliche column-left layout, where navigation information runs in a narrow column down the left side of the screen. The Kansas City Star and the Albuquerque Journal are two top-notch on-line newspapers that still use this layout. Variations of this style include columns on both sides (American Journalism Review), and wider columns (The Chronicle of Higher Education). However, even those variations are already old-fashioned and do not reflect the latest developments in user-friendly interfaces.
A more up-to-date format would use frames to present some of the navigation information. Frames allow a title logo and the navigation information (like the search and index information) to remain on the screen wherever the reader is, enabling the publisher to keep the publication's logo right in front of the reader and to allow the reader to more quickly move around the site and to know at a glance what other navigation options are available. The primary frame could be devoted, first, to an issue-specific table of contents, then to the content of the followed links. Navigation-oriented pages seem to be found most often on commercial sites like the web site of software publisher Macromedia.
Then again, at least a few cutting-edge web designs are using a single-panel gateway to minimize reader frustration. For example, check out the online New York Times. (Note: even though this is a marvelous gateway, I'd be really upset as an advertiser on this page, because the average reader can see the entire table of contents without scrolling down to where the ads are.)
The most glaring visual problem with the JEP site is caused by the change of the page color from the original gray to white. That caused a problem with the logo, since its background remained gray. The logo looks out of place. And the logo itself is visually a little troublesome, because the "P" disappears behind the subtitle. The logo should be designed better, and it should be professionally drawn for the screen.
The best models for the JEP site are from other sites of interest to publishers and journalists, such as American Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher's MediaInfo, and SPJ's The Electronic Journalist. Although those sites have shortcomings, they combine attractive and professional visual design with online technical savvy in ways that enhance their visual appeal and ease-of-use, perhaps lending more credibility to their modern, online related content.
The quality of the content at the JEP site deserves a more enticing and exciting user interface. It really wouldn't take that much effort to upgrade it. In fact, it wouldn't take that much effort to bring it up to a level that would surpass the visual sophistication of the majority of newspaper and online journalism Web sites and to make it one of the premiere online journalism site designs.