USA Today iPad app: Behind the scenes

Use of color.  Short story forms. A certain weather page.

It’s not hard to argue that USA Today has had a large part in shaping the design of newspapers since it launched in 1982. (SND named the founding of the paper the number one “Influential Moment in News Design” of the last 25 years in 2004.) So when Apple finally announced its iPad earlier this year it was no surprise that USA Today would be one of the first papers to adopt the platform.

The newspaper had a free application available on the day of the launch that has proved popular. In Apple’s App Store, it’s stayed in or near the top 10 free apps list and holds a favorable score from iPad users. The application is scheduled to switch to a pay model later this summer — a move that will test if users are willing to pay for news content in this new medium.

The design has everything you would expect from the newspaper: photo galleries, graphic snapshots and, of course, the weather. But the developers also pulled in a few small touches to cement the tie to the print product: a familiar layout, the color coded sections and even graphics representing the cutoff of the newsprint.

SND spoke with William Couch, Interaction Designer at USA Today, via e-mail for some insight into the development of the application.

SND: There is an obvious link between the print edition and the iPad app. Branding is important, but did you feel iPad readers needed more of a tie to the print edition than say the web or mobile readers?

William Couch: A couple factors were at play here. Just around the corner sits Mobile Safari where our website is available for browsing so to replicate that experience felt redundant. Plus, the site isn’t built to provide the rich, interactive experience that taking advantage of the platform’s unique features in a native app allows.

The other factor is the iPad’s screen. Translating the mobile experience would feel out of place considering the difference between the size of a mobile device’s screen and the iPad’s. You can get a sense for this by running any iPhone-based app in 2X mode on the iPad. Even disregarding the pixel-doubling, the interface just doesn’t scale. Additionally, physical newspapers are made to be held with two hands and casually browsed, so adopting elements of the print layout and experience felt like a natural starting place. This helps draw a parallel between the experience of the print edition, while maintaining the unique interactive elements of a web and mobile experience. Apple advocates for referencing real world objects in their human interface guidelines, but recommends that the physical representations be subtle; less of a literal translation and more of a gentle nudge. This is what we were trying to achieve in our approach.

SND: USA Today already had an iPhone app to use as a starting point for developing the iPad app. What were the differences in designing for the two platforms?

WC: As mentioned, the interface for the iPhone app just does not scale well to this larger screen size. So, the biggest difference was designing the user interface for a screen nearly five times as large. One of the beautiful qualities about designing for mobile is knowing how to limit your interface design. The screen is small enough that it should largely be focused on performing one task at a time. With more space though, you can add greater visual context while still maintaining focus on a single task.

Aside from interface and layout differences, we worked hard to scale any visual components. Our photo and graphics editors now have a workflow in place that provides larger versions of their content specifically optimized for a tablet display. Photo editors will always tell you images look better larger, and when you’re working with a screen you can hold, that rule holds even more truth.

Despite these differences in our approach to the design for each platform, we did decide not to commit to building or adding any additional features for the iPad app beyond what we had done on the iPhone. This allowed us to focus on getting the application’s layout and interface right and not worry about feature bloat.

A look at the USA Today iPad app architectural map

SND: How large was the development team? What were their disciplines? How long did they have to work on this?

WC: Our core internal team work varies but there are about four of us who work with Mercury Intermedia, a development group based in Brentwood, TN, which comprises of another variable sized crew, but tends toward three or four more. I suppose you could count the main folks then with two hands.

The team’s disciplines are a mix of design, development, IT, business, and legal. Discussions about the application happened almost immediately after the device’s announcement, design a few weeks later, and development in the last five or so weeks.

SND: How much time is spent tweaking the presentation daily? How many times does the feed to the iPad update throughout the day?

WC: The stories that cycle at the top of each section are hand-picked by our A1 editor, and are manually updated as needed, but usually at least once a day. They tend toward our cover stories for the day so that as news breaks later in the day, our “featured content” doesn’t get buried. Otherwise, the list of stories is updated automatically several times throughout the day, largely at the whim of the day’s events.

SND: You’ve had a while to play with the iPad now. What have you seen in the App Store that impressed you?

WC: I think NPR, the New York Times, and BBC have wonderful apps. Navigating story to story in NPR is a joy, and building a dedicated queue of stories to listen to is a breeze. The measured focus of the Times’ application gives the sense of smart, tight editing in the form of an app and the inline video is a nice treat. I look forward to seeing how they expand upon the app as I doubt this is as far as they’ll go with this platform. BBC’s app has a mix of the Times’ focus and NPR’s sense of immediacy with live broadcast streaming that also feels very solid.

Additionally, I personally enjoy The Guardian’s Eyewitness app which showcases a new gorgeous, high-resolution photo a day that’s generally tied to a news event, and also offers information about how the photo’s look was achieved through some light technical tips. I think that’s a simple but great bonus that adds a little transparency to the news-gathering process.

SND: The USA Today app has been in the top 10 free downloads in the App Store and has three out of five stars from users. What kind of feedback are you getting about what users like and don’t like?

WC: The feedback has been tremendously positive. We’re seeing users reading and enjoying our content who hadn’t before, or would on occasion but now do so daily, and loyal readers thanking us for being on the platform from day one. But being an early entrant to a completely new platform has meant some confusion in navigation and occasional bugs. We’ve been listening though, and have fixed or will be fixing these issues quickly.

SND: What can we expect from v1.1?

WC: Performance and memory issues will be vastly improved in 1.1, and we’ll have market and stock data, along with a daily interactive crossword built in. There are a few more ideas we have planned, but you’ll have to wait for the update to see them. :)

SND: The app is free now, but will be moving to a pay model after July 4th. You tried something very different by having a sponsor for the launch that is the only advertiser in the entire app. How was that decision reached?

WC: Building and launching an application for a device no one has ever used is not an easy task, so gauging public reception of the device was necessary to help articulate our strategy for a pay model. With the first three months free, we can introduce users to the application, gather feedback, continue to make the app bulletproof and then determine the best way to proceed.

That said, fairly early on, we were able to demonstrate the potential of the platform to advertisers to secure a sponsor for the launch, so that’s how we initially approached the issue.

Download the free USA Today for iPad app here.

MIKE RICE is the visual team leader / design & graphics at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and was the Edition Coordinator for SND’s 31st Best of News Design competition. He pre-ordered his iPad the first hour it was available and is busy trying to figure out which game it is changing.