The iPad Shines a Light at the End of the News Design Tunnel

Rupert Murdoch has gleefully announced that the Wall Street Journal hit 64,000 iPad subscribers. Putting aside that these may be free trial subscriptions and his managing editor is claiming 3,200, this is still an interesting development after just two weeks. And how are their competitors adding up? Even with a heavier emphasis on integrated/contextual ad placements, new applications are starting to get ... well ... interesting.

So what's out there and where's it going?

Start with mobile design. In effect, we are looking at identical experiences. Home pages are photo itemized lists, article pages are succinct, all apps use a perpetual menu at the bottom and small variations ensue. But in the end, content will drive your selection of an app—not the simplicity of use.

I was expecting most companies to mimic phone design conventions but larger (even though I was desperately hoping they wouldn't) and to my shock, USA Today, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal's apps broke from the convention! For purposes of comparison, I tracked the Gulf oil spill across all news properties and only held horizontally (even though they all work great in both positions).

USA Today

Right out of the gate we're already posed with something we haven't seen in years on a screen (well successfully at least): a newspaper layout. Yes, there's an ad in the right column, and yes, the design is still more modular than a zoned paper... but this doesn’t look anything like a desktop monitor design.

And with that, USA Today carries the experience through in a simple yet useful manner all the way down to their content pages. We start to see a pattern I'm very happy to encounter—three columns! Not Left navigation then Content then Content/Advertising but three columns of text and imagery.

This is a pattern you can see with almost all of the news apps and a welcome one. 

NPR

I was surprised to see the traditional homepage design tossed right out by NPR. While I thought this wouldn't capture the essence of news, it grew on me. Your options are simple: News, Arts & Life, Music. Done. Scroll left, scroll right select. Refreshingly easy.

NPR's content pages were great at cross promotion of content with the collapsible content bar at the bottom, but didn't actually use the full screen for the display of their content which is very apparent when reviewing the other news apps.

NPR leaned heavier on social media promotion as well as a very light handling of advertising via sponsorships. This layout helped me realize how much I don't mind more aggressive advertising when it's built into the product appropriately.

New York Times

Oh me, oh my. With a publication that's as deep and robust as the Times, I'm hoping their news app is a temporary placeholder until they break from contractual obligations with Amazon's Kindle. If that's not the reason, it's time to catch up. As an aside, Steve Jobs agrees with me.

On a high note they've managed to pull a tighter four-column grid that looks great and works will with their content and advertising. But their content pages don't cross promote any of their rich content or suggest any further reading or interaction. My hope is to see their wealth of reporting displayed in a way that conveys their preeminent branding as the paper of record. While there's actually a good amount of content available via the navigation at the bottom I'm still left thinking about what the Wendy's spokeswoman said in the late 80's, "Where's the Beef?"

Wall Street Journal

And the winner (even though I don't want to blow up Mr. Murdoch's head even more) is WSJ.

They clearly took the time to visualize an experience for the iPad that blows everything else out of the water (and it should, at its ridiculous subscription of $18/month). From WSJ's first screen that offers the last nine papers you've downloaded, a saved articles section, my watch lists, and saved sections, to the deeper thinking around whether a finger swipe left and right should progress between articles vs. a pinch to close an article or section, they really thought this one through!

The heart of any news organization lies in its content page. Whether it's an article, video, photos, graphics, or audio, content is what draws an audiences. And ensuring that you can give your audience what they're looking for, while cross promoting other valuable and contextual content is a win. WSJ not only achieves this but telegraphs clear as day that you can interact with content (like the video above).

And not to say others are not doing this similarly, but WSJ managed to make me satisfied with $18/month in subscription costs and inline advertising that is appealing (yes, I watched the Oracle video).

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today iPad apps show experience and design do not have to be dictated by IAB standard ad units. (NPR doesn't really play in the world of display advertising so they get a pass.) It seems there's a shift in business models from measurable display ad buys to brand buys, which is more like television, and the iPad is waiting with open arms. This makes sense too if you think about how those million iPads Apple sold in the first month were bought by people who can part with $500+ (influencers). That's quite a compelling audience to reach. There's way more to do here—using my geo location to personalize relevant content for one—but we're off to an interesting start as more publications begin to find their way to this new Shangri-La of news design.

Read Giovanni Calabro's blog Design Pragmatist
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Giovanni Calabro has over 13 years of experience leading interactive research and design efforts for a wide range of business sectors. At Siteworx, Giovanni leads the design team responsible for user experience strategy, brand analysis, search engine optimization (SEO), search and analytics integration and social media strategy. With clients as diverse as MTV Networks, USATODAY.com, NPR, and JPMorgan Chase, Giovanni provides expert strategy and advice in the areas of stakeholder and staff alignment and new publishing models for emerging platforms such as social media and mobile channels.

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3 Comments

  • Bottle Rocket

    Thank you for the great reviews on the NPR app. We are so glad that it is receiving such positive feedback!

  • Michael Davis

    Great survey. Thanks.

    We are trying to do something in this vein on the Plain Old PC (http://mattters.com).

    In a past life, we found that even older demographics did not want their online content to look like print content (multiple columns, etc.) 'too much' - our interpretation being that they liked aesthetics but wanted it feel like they were reading something 'modern' and with it.

    Maybe the iPad changes all that.

  • Slade Sundar

    Are these all separate apps? I read more than one newspaper/site a day. I wouldn't want to have to open up a separate app for each one and have different interface options on each one. Maybe Apple can come up with a standard "news" viewing app, and build in subscriptions instead of having the newspapers themselves come out with apps? Everyone knows Apple loves to force a standard, and in this case, it would be welcomed.