New York Times’ Snow Fall story has been a whopping success in attracting spotlight. It went viral immediately after publishing, and resulted in many imitations. It has also drawn some constructive criticism.

I think Snow Fall is a landmark example of technical excellence of implementation, pushing the boundaries of possible on the web and of bold experimentation. On a less exciting side, I also think it broke ground in a whole new category of skeumorphism, something I would call: Editorial Skeumorphism.

Editorial Skeumorphism is present when primary digital content is decorated with “ornaments” (auxiliary content treatment) that is not organic to the primary content. Such ornamentation serves the purpose of being attractive eye-candy, but can take attention away from the primary content.

The main problem with Snow Fall design is the confusing visual hierarchy. The story is a great example of masterful long-form writing: 10,000+ words of captivating narrative, yet the story text is definitely not the center of attention in the design. The text of the story is set in small-by-modern-standards, 15px, font and the fabulous visual effects all around it provide enough distraction for probably very few people to concentrate on the actual story.

What was the goal?

If the goal of NYT was to get many pageviews: they have succeeded beyond any doubt (was a single banner enough to capitalize on that success, though?). I have to question how many people have actually read the story, however? I obviously don’t have the data and I would love to be proven wrong, but large body of UX research in readership attention span and visual hierarchy, as well as non-scientific, anecdotal polling of a handful of people around me makes me think that: very small percentage did.

It makes me sad to think that an important, well-written 10,000+ word story may not have gotten read because text was overshadowed by [very creative] visual treatment that was probably supposed to be auxiliary to the story. Did too much “chrome” ruin the experience of reading?

If it did indeed happen, then this is the problem with Editorial Skeumorphism: we, the horrible modern humans have limited attention span and for us to spend any time with anything, it must be very clear what we are expected to do. Attracting us with great visuals and then expecting that it will make us also read long-form text is probably a very unrealistic expectation.

I think the visuals of Snow Fall were a clear editorial mismatch to the long-form text. It would have probably worked fantastically with audio, since audio doesn’t require the same kind of undivided attention that text does.