History puts a new spin on itself (in beta, no less)
Whether you're a World War II buff
looking for photos of B-17 bombers, an Ax Men fan who missed last night's episode, or a high school student doing research for a term paper on King Tut (due tomorrow!), the new history.com is
the site to visit - at least that's what A&E Television Networks, which owns History (formerly known as The History Channel until it got grandiose), hopes.
The previous incarnation of history.com focused primarily on promoting History's television programming, but this new site aims to be a destination for those interested in history in general. "We certainly want to continue to support our programming with the site," says Evan Silverman, senior vice president of digital media at A&E Television Networks. "But," he adds, "We saw an opportunity to tap into the vast scale of topics that exist around history."
To that end, Huge created a new history.com with a robust back end that enables the site to host an ever-growing repository of historical information in text, video and interactive form, and a front end that allows users to find and view this content with ease.
It should be noted that the site is currently in beta, as indicated by the beta tag underneath the History logo on the home page. "The beta tag is an indication that this is a work-in-progress. We wanted to get the site live to start generating some real feedback and data, and we'll adjust accordingly," says Silverman, adding, "The site is in very good shape now - it'll be in even better shape in the coming weeks."
So is history.com just repeating itself, or is this indeed a fresh, innovative redesign? OMMA sought the opinions of digital creatives - Big Spaceship's Chris Cocca and Tim Nolan of Hush Studios - as well as Eric Langhorst, a history teacher at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, Mo., and the blogger behind speakingofhistory.com.
First of all, what do you think of history.com being launched in beta?
Nolan: Everything these days should come out in beta. It's valuable for the brand to put things into the public for immediate consumption - that's the only way you're going to find out if it works. A lot of the smarter brands have done that, and History is smart for pursuing that path.
Cocca: I didn't notice a strong call to action for feedback, so that would be a nice feature to add with the beta tag.
Langhorst: I didn't even realize it was in beta and I've been using the site recently.
Do you find the home page visually appealing?
Cocca: It's very clean and has a modern look to it. I like how open it is with the white background.
Nolan: I appreciated the page width, but what I didn't like is that they had this nice big 900-pixel-wide slideshow, but they cluttered it up with a headline and two boxes plugging other features. It's very distracting. They have a chance to catch my eye and when I get there, I should just see one big image.
History is a vast subject. How thoroughly are they covering it on this site?
Cocca: What they have is impressive. There is a ton of information, and they've partnered with other content providers like Encyclopedia Britannica to augment the video that History does really well. It is a smart idea to use Britannica as a resource to add textual content.
Eric, can you make use of the content in class?
Langhorst: The video clips they have are pretty high quality. The site has a four-minute clip that shows the difference between the repeating rifle and the older model used during the Civil War. It's well done, and I'll be using it in class when we're covering the Civil War in a few weeks.
Does the navigational setup serve the site well?
Langhorst: They do a nice job of giving us the content without it being overwhelming.
Cocca: The site is a lot more focused on contextual navigation. The primary navigation fades to the background once you start diving into the site, and I didn't find a lot of use for it. That isn't meant as a negative - they've done a really good job of relating content and context.
Nolan: I did a search for UFO, and I got a link to the show UFO Hunters first, then additional content below that, and I think that's right. Their main goal should be to tell me what history.com or History knows directly about a topic, and then they should show me the bigger picture like they're doing.
Is the games section valuable?
Langhorst: I don't really know if there's much value in the combat games as far as a classroom exercise, but some of the games, like the "Expedition" game where you're on this imaginary trek, would work for students and the general public as well.
Nolan: If their audience skews a little older, I don't know if they will spend that much time on games per se, but I think the quizzes and the puzzles will be successful because they speak to more of an intellectual mind. The dog fight and turf war games might have been an attempt to loop in some kid who is doing a report, then gets engaged with the game.
Cocca: It would be good to imbed these games into social spaces to promote the site, especially if they're looking for a younger audience.
What do you think of the site overall?
Nolan: They are moving in the right direction. I've been through this process with clients like history.com who have to appeal to a mass audience but still maintain some brand equity and show who they are, and it's a tall order to please an advanced user like myself and to be able to talk to someone who is more of a novice on the Web.
Cocca: They've definitely made it clear that the site is not just about a TV channel but actually a source of content in its own right, which I think is great, and the way that they've used context as a way of navigating and moving people through the site will make for longer visits.
Eric, is there anything you would like to see added to history.com?
Langhorst: They have quite a bit of interactive extras for Ax Men. I appreciate that as somebody who watches that show. It would be great if you could have some interactivity with the people on the show, maybe ask a question. I realize that's tough to do, but sometimes my students have specific questions and I don't know the answer. So if I could ask a question of the producer of the Lewis and Clark video, for example, that would be great.