NPR is known for its transparency. This has never been more apparent than during the current wave of #MeToo revelations that have erupted through Hollywood, media, and of course, politics.
But on a more positive note, NPR has been especially open about its app development – sharing its secrets and strategies with the media world. A case in point is a recent story they published, helping the media world better understand just how challenging it is to build a great mobile experience.
In “Design Show-And-Tell: the NPR News App Gets a Facelift,” senior visual product designer, Libby Bawcombe, provides a step-by-step tour of the machinations they’re going through to rework their home screen design.
I have an appreciation for this as a founder of our own mobile app company, jācapps. We opened the door to a company specializing in designing mobile apps for radio just 100 days after Apple opened their now-famous App Store in 2008. During that time, we have worked hard to build individual radio station apps that are easy and intuitive to use, while doing more than just streaming someone’s favorite radio station.
NPR has also been on the forefront of mobile apps – in iPhones, then iPads, and of course, in dashboards. And they’ve learned that creating a great experience for their fans isn’t a walk in the park. In a recent article they published right on their website, NPR broke down the protocols and learnings involved in updating their main NPR News app.
Why is this important?
In a post we wrote last month – “Radio Can’t Just Check Off The Boxes” – we concluded that in order to succeed in the digital distribution space, the radio industry needs to do more than simply design and build serviceable apps, web pages, and podcasts. SiriusXM was the company we examined because they have most definitely stepped up their game, from Alexa skills to a new platform in cars.
And so it is with NPR. The article by the design team details the steps they’re taking to build a great app, starting right at the front – the home screen design. Here are 7 features of their process that any station or broadcast company should be considering as they hopefully do more than check off the “mobile app” box.
1. They have clear goals
Before they sketched out their ideas on cocktail napkins or they built wire frames, the team started with four succinct goals, including “Curate a mix of the latest news, plus stories from NPR’s point of view.”
An app needs direction – it isn’t just a button that plays a stream. By starting with clear objectives, NPR Design has a foundation for the experimentation and theorizing that comes with building a great app.
2. It’s all about the user
A great design is another way of making using the app a better experience. They know that if an app isn’t easy to use, attractive, and intuitive, it may not be used. Or worse, it could just as easily be deleted. Ending up on an iPhone or Galaxy Note home page is the key – just like a preset in a connected car dashboard – and it starts with the UX – the user experience.
NRP Design’s goals use words like “simplify,” “enhance,” and “offer” – for them, the app is all about the user. As they note, “We aim to make improvements our audience will actually use and benefit from.”
3. They do their homework
Of course, they studied their app metrics so they know whether current users are reading articles, playing streams, or going to on-demand content – or a combinations of those things.
But they also are conducting their own research – in-app surveys, studying help forms, initiating in-person and remote user tests. They’re all part of the NPR Design team’s protocol. Thus, when they start the redesign process, they have quantitative and qualitative data that help guide their efforts.
In short, they know what users want and expect from their app before moving onto the challenge of making it better.
4. They put their ideas to the test
The team then theorizes designs, and conducts experiments to test those ideas. These three versions of the home screen are great examples:
The version on the left (Fig. 10) uses a red font to indicate a “Breaking News” story. But the NPR Design team quickly learned the color red is alarming, especially when a big story breaks. Think bull fighting and red capes.
The version on the right (Fig. 12) is the one they’re moving forward with. They’ve discovered it clearly communicates the top story, as well as creates “breathing room” between stories. These are just a few of the many versions they’ve tested.
5. They’re not afraid to fail
The article details some of their other experiments, including different wording schemes, colors, and symbols to communicate what’s important and how to use the app. Sometimes, it’s a simple as enlarging the top story on the home screen to symbolize it’s the most paramount to an NPR fan. But in many of these iterations, there’s no fear about trying new concepts, innovations, and variations.
6. They take their time
Great app design is a process, and the NPR Design team respects that. This app will not be released until next year. And as you come to better understand their process, you realize they’ve been studying this space and their app for a long time.
On the jācapps side of the building, everyone will tell you their biggest stress points revolve around deadlines. Everyone wants their app next week – or if they’re lucky, next month. In some cases, this is more than possible because of past learnings, metrics, research, and successes they’ve already had. When you’ve built more than 1,100 apps, you figure a few things out.
But when it’s a brand new design – from scratch – the luxury of time is something they rarely have. The NPR Design team is well aware that building great apps takes time.
7. They’re an open book
The idea of sharing this process with other designers is unique to NPR. You can bet this article made the rounds among our jācapps designers and developers. By helping other app companies and the brands they serve create better, more user-friendly mobile applications, the entire space is elevated.
As we know, not every organization thinks this way – whether we’re talking radio broadcasters or automotive companies. Everything’s a big secret and designs are proprietary. NPR’s openness is refreshing, and leads to a better mobile app ecosystem.
Thanks, NPR Design, for showing us how it’s done, how to goal-set, make a plan, and go through the important steps necessary to build a great app.
Come to think of it, these are the same steps we should be employing when we launch a new format or morning show.
We can’t just check off the boxes.
Mobile App Webinar
Recently, we teamed up with our sister company, jācapps, which has built mobile apps for over 400 radio stations, to host a webinar on mobile app strategy for radio broadcasters. If you’d like to learn more about the topic, this is a great place to start.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
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