Juggling the Pieces of Tablet Design

By: Jim Rosenberg

In addition to our June cover story on publishing to e-readers and tablets, E&P talked with mobile-device designers, a researcher and a consultant about technical issues that affect what newspapers can do on the new devices.

For all the things they must consider, from the standpoint of the blank slate itself, designers work with three very basic device dimensions: screen size, display optics and navigation — basically space, how it looks and how one moves within it.

Calling screen size “critical” to newspapers, the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Roger Fidler says letter-size display is necessary “to provide a visually rich, compelling presentation for editorial and advertising content.” For that, he continues, “optimum size” is 9-12 inches — something only a handful of tablets have.

Recently returned from RJI at the University of Missouri, Los Angeles Times Editorial Business and Planning Director Sean Reily agrees, adding, “I think the consumer will determine that, absolutely.” While seeing value in screens of all sizes, he says larger ones allow navigation that is closer to what we know from print — multiple stories, tabs to other sections. Browsing and discovering other stories of interest rather than searching through a story list “really enriches your content-consuming experience,” he says.

Others, however, look for more latitude. Because devices are different beyond screen size, it’s not simply a matter of scaling designs up or down, says consultant Amy Webb, citing, for example, different versions of the Android OS and even button placement.

But even if it’s not as simple as scaling to screen size, USA Today designer William Couch thinks that as the range of devices grows, there may be some useful similarities, and each format should be assessed for how size will affect layout. For now, however, he says that is not the case, and work is likely to adapt existing designs for newer devices’ possibilities. Size, he concludes, is not irrelevant, but one of many factors you have to look at.”

Porting a design for an e-paper reader, even a larger one, to an iPad or other large tablet not only would ignore size, color and interactivity, but also the possibilities of portrait and landscape orientations, used indoors or out, in a cramped plane seat or alone at a picnic table. As Couch puts it: “It becomes much more about how a person is going to use a device in the environment they are in.”

To Webb, what matters is creating an entire product with “exceptional content,” then packaging it for the appropriate device. For the smallest screens, that means the most intuitive navigation, while a larger tablet can have a more sophisticated approach, she says.

There is no best display across the board, says Webb, adding that it doesn’t matter for newspapers, which don’t control the market. So, many are betting on the iPad, and companies develop not only “for what makes sense technologically,” but also for what consumers do. Webb says she wouldn’t advise a newspaper client to start thinking about developing for an organic LED screen (most of which in consumer electronics go to phones anyway) rather than something else. And scroll or paperlike displays? “There’s no way to add… functionality,” she says.

“Consumers don’t want a single-function device,” she continues, chalking that up partly to consumer fatigue with many devices in many versions, doing what can be done on one existing device

Content can basically be repurposed in some instances. But Matt
Jones, Gannett Digital’s vice president of mobile strategy and operations, says that’s not USA Today’s approach. “That’s not what we did with iPad, and that’s not what we did for our mobile products,” he says. The iPhone and iPad development approaches were similar, handled more like the Web, he says, with round-the-clock updates for an “on-the-go” paper well-suited to  mobile devices.

Work was “design-centric,” and “85% of our product runs completely automated,” based on usatoday.com content flow, Jones says. But for iPad, “we borrowed more of the print design than we have in the past.”

Jones says different display technologies require “radically different designs.” Among the first papers to design for iPad, USA Today tried to keep its color scheme  — “a huge asset” in terms of familiarity and “clarity.” Kindle, on contrast, “just can’t do what iPad can do — you’re left with sort of a black-and-white approach,” he says. For iPad, the paper adapted units like color bars across bottom of page and ear ads. “Depending on whether you’re holding the device in portrait or landscape, you’re going to get one of those ads,” says Jones.

Another issue is that with color, says Couch, “you have a little more to think about in terms of contrast.” As far as relevant technology, the new iPhone was rumored to have twice the existing model’s resolution, and Android resolution already is higher than the existing iPhone’s but not as high as what was expected in the next model. Expecting all devices’ resolution to improve at no higher cost, Couch says, “It’s just going to get easier to read.”

But for now, type is a different story. E-Ink, with its higher resolution, gives Amazon “a little more flexibility and freedom” in designing with type for the Kindle, he says. “A small criticism of iPad is that its resolution is actually less than on its iPhone” — something Apples is expected to address.

With only device spec’s available while designing USA Today, Couch says, “it was tricky with iPad because you didn’t have the device to work with or see the resolution.” But one big benefit is readers’ ability to vary type sizes. In designing type in a layout, that factor “is probably the most important,” he says. “The situations can vary so much it largely becomes a matter of giving the user the ability to adjust [size].”

Full-size mock-ups were printed out to get some idea of how type would look. Today, says Couch, designers can “look at what we’ve done and see what changes” are needed. Overall, he reports being very happy with outcome.

As on paper, white space “is a consideration,” says Couch. Unlike a smartphone, a tablet screen affords shared space, and white space can be used even better than on paper for readability, in his view — though striking the necessary  balance between available space and visual appeal when presenting multiple stories.

Design implications of transmissive and reflective displays, are much like coping with color  or greyscale: Much is “determined on a case-by-case basis,” says Couch. A design choice in either case might simpler, less dynamic, like a news page. While USA Today’s iPad structure is “similar to the… printed page,” he says, a kindle design would be a “very straightforward” list or array of stories. “It doesn’t allow for as much customization as the iPad.”

How light forms or reflects a screen’s image makes difference in how it can be read, and having brightness control does matter, but either way it can  be made clear that “you’ve got the same brand across the board,” says Couch. With no hard and fast rules, he adds, a designer can only try each and “determine what works.”

And complaints about iPad daylight readability? “We try to do the best we can,” says Couch, noting that the matter is largely out of designers’ control and “much more about the hardware.”

Designers cannot change but can work with the user interface. And the iPad is just “one big screen,” says Couch, with controls on screen and built into an app. Because iPad controls disappear when an app is running, he notes, designers have “free rein” in creating app interfaces, where the object is to minimize controls so they will not distract from content. At the same time, he adds, it is important to have “some similarity to what has been done in the space before” to avoid giving users “a completely foreign experience.”

It probably won’t be long before news designers for tablets are able to work in other dimensions on the devices, which “are generally aware of themselves,” notes Couch, thanks to things like GPS or WiFi that tell where it is, a magnetometer for direction, and accelerometer to know orientation. So, especially with an Internet connection, that offers “lots of untapped potential for how to work with [news] content,” he says, possibly opening a window onto what’s going on around or nearby, though unseen by user.

How many people will use the capabilities, and “how they will fit in their daily routine,” he concludes, remains unknown — “an obstacle, but also the exciting part of it.”

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