As tablets change how we read, news needs a major makeover to keep up

I doubt I’m breaking news to anyone when I assert that the tablet has changed how we interact with the written word. The real question is what else is it changing along the way?

Tablet ownership doubled in the U.S. in 2012, and more than half of U.S. adults own a tablet or a smartphone. Thirty-seven percent of tablet owners read news on it every day. As the numbers grow, our industry’s notions about how readers consume text, video and photos on the web will need to be re-examined with an eye toward the user experience these readers have come to expect on mobile devices. This improved user experience, more than the shiny awesome newness of a sleek ereader, is what I think is really what’s changing people’s habits.

iPad image: Flickr user sucello

(image: Flickr user sucello)

Going back for a moment….I was a freshman at Kent State back in 1998 when I took a class called Mediamorphosis, taught by Roger Fidler. A pet subject Fidler revisited time and again was the idea that newspapers – in fact, all media — would someday be digitized and made portable in the form of a tablet. Videos would play with the touch of a screen, related info could be brought up in the context of an article — it seemed too good to be true. But Fidler saw what was coming (just check out this video of him on the subject in 1994, it’s amazing).

What I don’t think he understood at the time was just how much tablets would change the reader experience across all our devices and formats. 2012 marked my first full year as a tablet-based news consumer. Looking back, I’m struck by how much my habits have shifted in such a short time. I read more – and more of what I want – and I’ve found I’m not necessarily any more likely to pay for it (not yet anyway).

Like most journalists, I consume a fair amount of media. I routinely get the majority of my news links from contacts on social media, email newsletters and alerts from a few select sources and communities like Reddit. I manage to get a good overview of what’s happening across social media and curation services, and I save many stories across the web for more sustained reading via social media plugins with Diigo and Pocket.

The move to the tablet has changed that experience even further. I prefer to skim my favorite news sources on Pulse or Flipboard over their websites and typically their own apps (shoutout to USA Today, who tells me on page 2 of a story on Flipboard that I need to go to their app to read the rest. No, I’d rather not). I’ve found I’m far more likely to click a link on a Washington Post story on my tablet or phone over the web – as their mobile web design loads faster and reads easier inside my screen than their email newsletters and regular website. I consume more news than ever, alebeit in far more disjointed ways (and I’m not alone in this trend).

I’ve also found I read a lot more books and magazines. For one, I travel more now than ever, so that’s a factor — but the sheer ease of finding and reading books on the reader makes a huge difference. Going over my various reading apps – iBooks, Kindle, Bluefire – I’ve read 18 novels this year. I’ve paid for one – the others were library books. I don’t think I’ve read this much (for fun) since I was in middle school. It’s brought the joy of reading back to my life.

I also manage to keep up with my few remaining magazine subscriptions a bit better as well. The apps for Self, Entertainment Weekly and ESPN magazines are beautifully designed and appropriately interactive (I can watch a workout demo from Self, for instance, without loading a video). All of these apps create a far better experience than accessing any of these publications online – hence why I never visit their websites.

Note how the user experience has proven to be so important in this transition. When we set out to design (or redesign) our news sites, user experience seems to be one of the last priorities after making sure we fit every possible section front into the nav bar and make everyone happy by stacking random junk in the right rail. If we’re going to keep winning (and keeping) readers, user experience has to be a top priority, as it will translate into our other major priorities (i.e. making money).

As more news consumers move to mobile, their expectations for how all news sites should look and operate will change along with it. Quartz designed their site with this mobile user experience in mind, making it a great time-suck of a news experience on any device. If we want people to stick around, news sites need to test and retest web designs across screen sizes, browsers, devices and demographic groups to make them flow as well as the mobile experience. More importantly, we need to do this early in the process, not in course of launch or after the fact.

How has the tablet and/or mobile experience changed how you consume media? What’s your organization doing to cater to these users? Let me know in the comments.

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