posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 26th Dec 2012 00:32 UTC
IconNow that the holidays are upon us (happy holidays!) and the year is about to end, we at OSNews thought it time to finally lift the veil a little bit on the next version of OSNews - OSNews 5. I've hinted at this next version of OSNews here and there in the comments, but we think it's time to make it all a little bit more official by taking in some initial feedback.


Introduction

OSNews is actually quite old, especially in web and technology terms. OSNews was founded by David Adams, still the current owner, way back in prehistoric 1997. You could call this OSNews 1, and you can still browse part of the content from that time period through our 1997 archive - you can read all about the latest and greatest in technology, like Motorola claiming the PowerPC architecture would one day hit 1Ghz (with exclamation mark!), the release of Rhapsody, or the US antritrust case against Microsoft.

OSNews eventually lingered, until Eugenia picked it up somewhere around 2001, after leaving BeNews behind. Eugenia made OSNews big, and the version she designed and built - OSNews 2 - is probably the most iconic we've had. After Eugenia decided to take a step back after many years of working on the site day and night, I took over editorially, while Adam set out to redesign the site once more. After doing major work on the backend of the site - which would become OSNews 3 - he then focussed on the frontend of the site, work that would eventually lead to OSNews 4 (what you're looking at now). From the top of my head, this was probably about 4 years ago.


Why a redesign?

Even though OSNews 4 has served us well, the site sorely needs a redesign from top to bottom. We don't do redesigns just for the fun of it, and it's a matter we take very seriously (as evidenced by only being at version 4 even though we're 15 years old). There are several reasons why a redesign is necessary.

  • Our site is entirely custom. This makes it hard to pass the torch onto somebody new.
  • Our backend is old. As Adam put it, "the core parts of the database are mostly the same as when Eugenia wrote them", and from what I gather (but my knowledge about these matters is limited), the current site is still made up of code both from Eugenia and Adam, parts of it most likely quite obscure and hard to maintain by someone else.
  • There's a lot of cruft in the site as a whole. Old pages that have long ceased to be updated and should be removed - it's time we have a spring cleaning.
  • The tools we use to publish articles are quite Spartan and not particularly user-friendly, and a more modern article editor, image upload/resize capabilities, and even something as simple as double-return-equals-paragraph would be a very welcome addition.

  • OSNews' frontend has always been made to fit the kind of content that gets posted. Over the past one to two years, the kind of content has changed - but the site has remained the same. It hasn't adapted to a changing publication pattern.
  • There are several user-facing features that sorely need usability updates


What will change?

OSNews 5 will tackle most - if not all - of these issues. First and foremost, we're making a pretty big switch. We're leaving our ageing custom backend behind, and making a switch to Drupal. This past year, Tess has been working very hard, in her free time no less, to import the entire OSNews database into Drupal. Right now, if I understand things correctly, she has a preliminary version of OSNews running locally (not accessible to the web, that is) on Drupal. Again, I'm not particularly knowledgable on these matters, but from what she's told me, it's a hell of a lot of work, especially since it's all done in her free time.

Switching to a well-known, open source CMS makes OSNews more future-proof, and takes some of the burden of maintenance off our shoulders. In addition, Drupal is quite extensible, which makes it easier to add or remove functionality in the future. Its open nature means changing site admins will be less of an issue than it is now. Tess might write some articles in the future about this import process and the headaches she's run into along the way, but no promises on that one.

As far as frontend goes - the stuff you guys see - we're going for a radical redesign. Like the backend switch, the frontend work will result in a completely new OSNews. Since I'm the one designing the frontend (not coding it though), it's lot easier for me to talk about this aspect than the backend stuff.

The goals are simple. OSNews is about two things: news items and comments (in fact, I'm pretty sure most of you find the latter more important than the former), so for OSNews 5, it was my goal to bring items+comments front and centre. Everything else is fluff, and needs to get out of the way so you can quickly read the news items and the comments.

Another important goal was to make the site more user friendly. If you comment on OSNews, you're probably aware that it's a pretty disjointed experience right now. If you click on 'reply' or 'post comment', you're taken to a dedicated page, completely out of context. Once you click 'submit comment', the page reloads once more, and your posted comment is shown. For OSNews 5, we'll finally have in-line commenting, without reloads. You write your comment amidst all the other comments, so you have the entire context of the both the news item and the other comments right there.

A particularly crucial change is that we'll merge the front page and page 2 columns back into one. This divide was originally made to force me to write 2-3 front page items ('long items', in official parlance), since if I didn't, a large part of the site would appear to be outdated. This plan actually worked very well, since for several years I was able to actually do so.

Sadly, that has changed. Back then I attended university, and had loads of free time to dedicate to OSNews. Writing 2-3 long items every day took about 4-5 hours every day, and that's something I can no longer do, as you've undoubtedly noticed. I run my own business now, and my time is much more limited now. I want to focus on shorter items now; less verbose, more direct. So, OSNews' design has to adapt to that new publication flow, and this means 'short items' (the stuff in the right-side 'page 2' column) have to be integrated back into the main column.

The added benefit here is that this will make the site less complex. If there's one thing that has been a red thread throughout the design process, it's been to make it all less complex. In fact, when I first started work on designing OSNews 5, I called it 'OSNews Simple'. In case you're interested - the current code name I'm using is 'Nina', after Nina Persson, since The Cardigans' stark, minimalist, and icy cold album Gran Turismo served as inspiration (example). Gran Turismo is one of my favourite albums of all time.


Previews!

I've gone through several iterations, aggressively trying to make Nina less complex, to remove things we don't need, and to make sure items+comments are the very stars of the show. A short while ago, I finally hit what I believe to be the jackpot. Here's a preview of what OSNews 5 is going to look like - but please bear in mind that as far as design goes, things can and quite likely will change.

As you can see, it's very text-oriented. Since both items and comments are 100% text, this only seems fitting. You may notice several casualties straight-up - like category icons. They won't come back, since maintaining them is hell (none of us are artists), leading to a hodgepodge of icon styles, some newer, some hopelessly outdated. They had to go.

The big one: comments. Threading has been made more clear, and since we'll try to employ responsive design where it makes sense, deep threads will flow better on wider displays. The comment form is in-line, and pressing 'reply' (or 'post new' in the top-right) will shift other comments downwards to make way for your new comment.

The buttons are quite colourful, but there's a reason for that. The only way to dismiss the comment form is through pressing 'submit' or 'cancel'; in other words, clicking anywhere else will not dismiss the form (unless you click an outgoing link, of course). This is a deliberate choice to prevent accidentally closing the form as you're scrolling around, which would make you lose what you've already written. As such, I want them to stand out, but among the few people who've seen these mockups, the buttons were clearly the most controversial element, so I might have to backpedal on this one. Also, we don't want to employ more complex solutions for this issue, all to keep things simple.

Some of you may wonder why things like 'vote up' and 'vote down' are textual instead of more commonly used things like arrows or triangles. A lesser goal was to make OSNews touch-friendly without turning the site into something comical. 'Vote up' is wider than an arrow, and thus, easier to tap. We could, of course, use a huge arrow - but that would look ridiculous.

I also have another treat in stock for you - after polling on Twitter, I realised that a dark version of OSNews might be a good idea, so here you go - Night Nina. It's unlikely Night Nina will be ready from day one (it's a secondary goal), but it looks quite nice, and reminds me of an old terminal display.


Scary

It's actually a little bit scary to put OSNews 5 in the spotlight like this for the first time. Tess is currently hard at work on the lower-level code, and OSNews as a whole will benefit greatly from all the time she's putting into it. The frontend - Nina - is only a relatively small part of it, but it will be the most visible, and thus the most criticised, part of OSNews 5. That's why I decided it might be a good idea to lift the veil a little bit, and get some early feedback as we proceed to turn Nina into actual code.

I've always been quite vocal about other people's GUI design, and this is the first time I actually get to put my money where my mouth is. The shoe's on the other foot now, Thom.

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