Design returns to the forefront, with a digital twist

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With early user studies showing that the iPad and other tablets were more conducive to leisurely, “lean-back” reading vs. rapid-fire web browsing, it became evident in 2011 that designing tablet editions would be a far different experience than designing dreary, search-optimized websites.

“We’re learning that design is incredibly important on the tablet,” Joe McCambley, co-founder and creative director at interactive agency The WonderFactory, said in January. “There’s some urgency to get on those devices now, but you really have to think through your content strategy and your interaction with consumers, and optimize around the tablet.”

For designers, the tablet presented two distinct challenges. The first involved finding the right balance of rich media (video, audio, animation) to use in each issue. Many early digital editions fell into one of two extremes: full of interactive bells and whistles that created extremely bloated apps (such as Conde Nast Traveler, which debuted in October at a robust 784M bytes), or PDF replicas that added little to the tablet reading experience.

Gradually, some publishers began to pull back on rich media features. In November, Time Inc.’s Steve Sachs told Adweek, “Interactive elements are valuable to [readers], but they’re a secondary benefit,”citing a “great reading experience” as the top priority.

The second challenge involved the best way to support device-specific touch and swipe features. Tablet touchscreens kicked off new debates over the benefits of swiping vs. scrolling – or when to use both navigation techniques. A Nielsen Norman Group iPad usability study in May found that iPad apps were afflicted with common problems such as “swipe ambiguity” – in which the presence of too many swipable items on a page confuses users into concluding that an app is broken.

Tablets created a heightened sense of design not just for apps, but also for mobile versions of websites. Publishers began devoting more attention to optimizing their websites for tablet-based browsing, which in and of itself was a much richer experience than the stripped-down mobile sites delivered to smartphones.

Emerging tools such as HTML5 led to more experimentation with techniques such as responsive design, which enables layouts and other web elements to adapt automatically to different screen sizes. The Boston Globe was perhaps the most prominent media brand to adopt responsive design this year, using it on the new BostonGlobe.com premium site it launched in September. ProPublica joined the party in December with its own adaptation of responsive design. Advances in these techniques added new fuel to the debate over whether publishers would be better served by focusing their resources on HTML5-based website development instead of tablet-specific apps.

Next: Online paywalls increase; metered models gain acceptance

Back to 2011: 5 game-changing trends

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