App designers share advice on creating news media smartphone apps


Arguably the most important piece of real estate for news media companies measures just 5 to 5.6 inches across.

Researchers at GfK, Germany’s largest market research institute, report that the average smartphone screen size will break the 5-inch barrier this year with the most common landing somewhere between 5 and 5.6 inches.

Smartphones may be growing before our eyes, but even at 5.6 inches, the average screen is still a relatively narrow visual playing field — and one under a lot of pressure. In the mobile arena, UX/UI (user experience and user interface) designers have become integral to unlocking its potential. 

With the design team at MindSea’s combined experience designing news-centric user experiences for the mobile space, we thought we’d get their take on the trends and best practices they’re currently tracking in newspaper app design. 

Reuben Hall is MindSea’s director of design. After dabbling in multiple mediums and a stint in print design for magazines and other publications, his intersecting design interests crystallized the moment he picked up the first generation iPhone. 

Amanda Somers fell irrevocably in love with UX after her very first design class. She’s a UX/UI designer who brings an eloquent illustrative touch to every project, and loves to watch the products she works on evolve and change as they find their audience. 

Nick Woodman is a UX/UI designer whose passion for design also includes an appreciation for number-crunching. Nick’s focused on analytics-informed design that bolsters app user community health, builds engagement, and provides better value.

I asked them several questions, starting with: What trends are you seeing in newspaper app design?

Nick: “A lot of what we’re seeing now is the best apps providing both consolidation and briefness, for example, quick views that give you a content snapshot instead of headlines.” 

Reuben: “I really like seeing more variety in presentation. There’s a whole generation of news apps that are very list-based, where every story looks the same, and it gets repetitive for the user. Whereas in print, you have designers customising layouts everyday based on content — they can do things like page takeovers or typography-based treatments to break the mold and capture people’s attention. News apps are starting to express the same kind of fluidity. 

Amanda: Curation and personalisation! Younger audiences especially are all about being able to modify their experience according to interests. Allowing them to express personality is key.” 

If you were to single out one design best practice newspaper app planners should keep in mind, what would it be?

Reuben: “Bring the content to the forefront first. The UI and everything else is there to support the content and make it shine.”

Amanda: “Engaging and amazing imagery. Your reader sees the image first, not the headline.” 

What can news apps learn from non-news app design? 

Nick: “Gamification would be an interesting one to explore. It’s a big buzz word, but aspects of this reward-based system do sometimes allow you to ‘hook’ your audience. You can analyse behaviour trends and look for opportunities where you can incentivise key or preferable behaviours.

A news organisation could devise a virtual reward, or an even more tangible one like discounts on subscriptions. Gamification retains users and keeps them in the app longer. And rather than block access, it’s a positive and affirming engagement strategy.”

Amanda: “Non-news apps pay particular attention to their intro. Oftentimes you see these amazing on-boarding experiences. A good intro gets you excited about the app you’re about to use and which features you want to try first.” 

What’s your prediction for the imminent future of newspaper app design? 

Nick: “We’ll see audiences becoming more and more involved in the creation process. This is already working for Medium. Users will be creating their own stories.” 

Reuben: “We’ll continue to see niche products, apps, and media sites focused on a particular audience or interest type. Media organsations are specialising more and more in deeper verticals. The one-size model will be hard to sustain.”

What are some apps you admire for their design? 

Reuben: “The NYT Now app encompases some of the things I’ve been talking about like variety of presentation and having different ways to show stories. They bring more content into the main feed besides just the headline — and even have different headline treatment styles.” 

Amanda: “VICE News is doing a great job. They use lots of imagery, the text is beautiful, they stick with Apple guidelines and it’s really easy to navigate. If I were to design a news app, I’d look there for inspiration.”

Reuben, Amanda, and Nick are part of the MindSea UX/UI design team (an investment of the Chronicle Herald based in Halifax, Nova Scotia). Though they may differ on some things, they’re in consensus on the value of great mobile design.

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