According to Pew Research, The State of the News Media 2012, “44% of adults own a smartphone, and the number of tablet owners grew by about 50% since the summer of 2011, to 18% of Americans over age 18.” While the news forums all but crackle with journalists claiming that the newspaper isn’t dead, I’m sure we can agree that the tablet is the best medium, if not the likely future, of news.
So it’s certainly time to discuss the design elements of a good tablet news app. In order to do so, we need to first look at what are still today’s most popular devices for news: newspapers and magazines. Yes, these are devices. They are made of paper, but they are still machines for discovering information. And they still define how we think about news.
I can’t resist looking at them from an information architecture standpoint. They have:
- a user interface designed to support search, discovery, navigation, and browsing;
- a controlled vocabulary (universally recognized labels and signposts);
- standard organizing principles (or schema, in the world of cognitive psychology).
What are these organizing principles? I could write a very long article about this, but basically, in plain terms, newspapers are designed for:
- Discovery (Any important news today?)
- Casual browsing (What’s going on in town this weekend?)
- Known-item search (How is the S&P doing? What was the football score?)
- Standardized navigation (It’s easy to flip to topics like Sports, Business, Politics, and at a finer granularity, Classifieds.)
Newspapers use different sized headline fonts and page placement to indicate relative importance, with more important articles on the front page, section front pages, and odd pages. Overall, a newspaper is easily scanned and navigated. Plus it’s easy to clip articles and coupons.
Magazines also score well for browsing, navigation, and search, especially if they cater to a specialty topic (Sports, Brides, Fashion, etc.). Magazines have a table of contents, and often have an advertising index.
Print, of course, lacks rich media capabilities, social networking, and hyperlinks. But it’s easy to carry, and works without wifi, which meant that until the smartphone revolution, print still had an advantage over digital, especially in subways and airplanes.
But not so much any more.
Mobile and tablet apps enable users to access news-on-demand from a variety of sources, and store great volumes of news in a smaller and more convenient form factor than print. Mobile news is convenient, but not terribly satisfying, especially if you favor long-form journalism. Nor is it pleasant reading if you have less-than-perfect vision.
But tablets are almost perfect devices for news. The form factor is terrific, you can increase font size and still display enough content for a satisfying read, and best of all, you can enjoy a mix of rich media and social interaction. So what are the elements of a killer tablet app? Well, if you think a “digital edition” (the faithfully-rendered print version displayed online) is going to be a good tablet experience, think again.
Again quoting the Pew Research report:
“There are some signs that the way people interact with news on mobile devices is quite different than news behavior on the desktop/laptop computers. Data from Localytics, a client-based mobile analytics firm, analyzed by PEJ reveals that people spend far more time with news apps on the smartphone and tablet, visit more pages at a sitting, and return more frequently than they do on conventional computers. That data reinforce findings from previous PEJ research in 2011 that people read more long-form news articles and go to new news sources on tablets.”
Here is a shortlist of important things to consider in tablet design:
Slideshows: At DNAinfo.com we discovered that slideshows really increase audience engagement. I will argue that the mouse click model for scrolling photos in a web site is nowhere near as easy and satisfying as the finger swipe model of an app. How many times has a friend or spouse handed you their phone and had you swipe through the photo gallery? It’s that easy.
Video: This is a bit of a wildcard. I have found that while some web users love video, the number of hits to video content hasn’t met expectations, possibly because of bandwidth issues and because video access at work is frowned upon (and can be heard in the next cube if you aren’t wearing headphones). But tablets offer a more personal experience, and I have spoken to companies that are working on technologies that will make video more easily accessible for apps, so I suspect that video will rise dramatically in value.
Home Page Design: Major news web sites are famous for cramming ever more articles onto the home page, overcoming the obvious real estate limitations of print and then exceeding those limitations to the point of absurdity. Unlike the minimalist mobile device, the tablet should show off its capacity for presenting a broad range of content. News consumers don’t always know what they want, but will recognize it when they see it. Stories with photos, even thumbnail images, will always attract more readers.
Apps are designed for a given tablet width, and while scrolling down is easy with a finger-swipe, readers won’t remember what they saw “above the fold” if they have to scroll down too far, scanning dozens of possible articles. So you have to organize content into drill-down hierarchies, accessed with a tap. But consider multiple hierarchies: for example, you can organize stories into the usual news topics on the main screen, and use left-right finger swipes to change the geographic range, with pages for World, National, Regional, and Local editions.
Story Page Design: As I’ve discussed previously, search engines (Google and Bing) provide the lion’s share of direct traffic to story pages on the web. That means in order to increase click-traffic (engagement), story pages on the web need to jump the reader to related stories as well as provide a significant amount of navigation. Tablet apps are a bit different; they need to be more self-contained machines for navigation and browsing, because the reader is more likely to be using the app itself for discovery, not an external search engine.
Search: Apps can hold a lot of content, and have the potential to engage a reader for longer periods. Search enables a reader to find content they know about, but don’t forget that hybrid search, one that also makes use of other organizing principles, can be very effective to support browsing. News apps can be like games; you can mesmerize a reader with multiple paths to information (and confuse them with too much choice). Consider the LATCH model (Location, Alphabetical, Time, Classification, Hierarchy) for alternative ways to organize your content.
Multi-Channel Integration: The tablet is part of an overall multi-channel (print, web, email, mobile, tablet, social) strategy.
“A new survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that rather than gravitating toward one device, a growing number of Americans are becoming multiplatform digital news consumers. These ‘digital mavens’ get news on all their devices — and even more so if they own all three types of devices. In other words, digital devices appear to be an additive experience.”
Think about this; if a reader chooses the tablet as their primary reading source, how will they best engage with coupons? By sending them to a PC for printing or mobile device for carrying in their pocket. How best to share news content? Through social networking or email. While readers may access your news from multiple devices, they may use the tablet not only as the primary interface but also as the “conductor” that enables them to optimize their use of content in the other channels.
Social Networking: Let’s face(book) it, people like to share articles with their friends. Don’t underestimate the need for social networking. According to an NPD Group report on May 17, 2012, “Facebook’s app and website were accessed by nearly three-fourths of U.S. Android smartphone users in March, making it the most used social networking website and app on the Android platform…”
People like to participate in the news process, through comments and even citizen journalism. News has become a conversation; make sure that your app isn’t doing all the talking.
Industrial Design: Tablets are sexy devices, and users will expect compelling, well-designed app templates. Clean, uncluttered, and attractive graphic design can’t be an afterthought. If we have learned nothing else from Steve Jobs, it’s that graphic design is as important to user acceptance and overall satisfaction as well-planned user experience design.
Usability: These features should be designed into an interface that makes great use of slide-out drawers, scrolling regions, drilldowns, and navigation models that app users are accustomed to. Try to balance innovation with commonly accepted interface paradigms; tablet users like cool stuff, but no one wants to spend any time learning how the interface works.