No. 9: Untangling the migration to mobile

Mobile technologies created huge ripples in 2008, both in and out of the news industry. Some milestones:

  • The iPhone become the top-selling handset, with more than 13 million phones sold. Plus, Apple created a rapidly expanding and diverse marketplace for third-party applications.
  • Google’s open-source mobile operating system, Android, made a big splash. Along with the iPhone, these devices completely redefined user’s expectations of smart phones — namely, migrating the richness of the Web into a handheld device.
  • Twitter, the micro-blogging service, exploded in popularity with millions of users and, by some estimates, between 1-2 million tweets per day.
  • The Kindle became a huge hit (even Oprah loves it) for reading long-form on the road, and keeping it fed with new books, newspapers, magazines and blog posts via an always-on and free wireless connection.

It was an epic year for handheld devices and the services that power them. And news organizations scrambled to respond.

Many of the most popular iPhone applications in the news category come from traditional organizations such as the AP, New York Times, USA Today, BBC, and CBS. Meanwhile, London’s Telegraph launched the first news app for Google’s Android platform. These applications allow for new modes of interaction. For example, users can contribute photos and reports from the field via the AP’s application or vote in polls that are broken down locally at USA Today.

Newsrooms also embraced the Twitter phenomenon. According to Erica Smith’s count, there are nearly 50,000 people following the updates from just the top-10 newspaper-affiliated Twitter accounts. She counted more than a thousand newspaper Twitter accounts in all last month, a number that’s sure to grow.

More importantly, these services facilitate communication in both directions. One study showed mobile-enabled systems helped information circulate more clearly than traditional channels during the shootings at Virginia Tech. James Buck, a UC Berkeley graduate journalism student, tweeted on his way to jail after being arrested by the Egyptian police for photographing protests in the country. Just last week, Mike Wilson posted Twitter updates moments after escaping a plane crash in Denver. During the attacks in Mumbai, Twitter became such a clearing house for information that Indian police asked users to stop posting for security reasons.

Challenges for news orgs

This abundance of information, and the tricky nature of attaching any type of authenticity or locality to it, becomes a major challenge for news organizations. Chrys Wu, who blogs at Ricochet, said that news organizations will need to balance their attention and vetting process with more speed than before. Some problems she sees:

  • Deciding what is worth paying attention to (choosing which fire hoses you will drink from).
  • How to monitor the incoming information.
  • How to quickly and reliably distinguish what is “real” from what is not.
  • How to best use the resources in-house (not just people, but the storehouses of information) to bring additional context to the incoming information.
  • How to stay on top of the story and follow it all the way through.
  • How to reach readers and earn their trust for news tips.
  • And how to do it at a speed nearly as fast as the rest of the information being posted and traded by people who are where the news is happening.

William Couch, a designer at USA Today who helped launch the news organization’s iPhone application, believes that most news forays into mobile platforms thus far have been relatively underwhelming. “Most implementations I’ve seen have not leveraged the organization’s content in ways that are befitting of the medium.”

“There’s an interesting dichotomy growing in how people are consuming content,” he said. “The most obvious scenario is when you’ve got a few minutes free, whether you’re waiting in line, or — ahem — traffic, and want to get a few quick hits. The less obvious scenario that I see emerging and really growing as the mobile sphere matures is long-form content being consumed on mobile devices.”

He points to Instapaper (a Web service that allows users to store articles for reading later, in particular via an iPhone application that makes for more mobile-friendly reading) and the Kindle as examples to transport long-form content off the printed page. (Newspapers are faring relatively well in the Kindle marketplace).

Underlying this rapidly changing landscape are the hurdles facing designers: smaller screens, limited bandwidth, wildly varying capabilities between devices and entirely new user-interface paradigms — and all these variables are evolving at a whirlwind pace.

Where can designers turn for advice? Here are a few starting points:

And, obviously, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Sound off in the comments with your observations of mobile innovations this past year and resources for better utilizing these tools and services.

2008: The Year in News Design

Tyson Evans is the editor of Update and an interface engineer at The New York Times.