Design for your ears: Hear about NPR One at #SNDDC

NPRonescreenNPR One is a personalized audio experience designed to be heard. The app is one of SND’s 10 digital finalists for World’s Best-Designed this year. Being out of sight creates a unique set of constraints for building a mobile app. Take a listen at SNDDC as Jeremy Pennycook and Dan Newman share the evolution of NPR’s new digital radio platform and how they design for your ears, not your eyes.

Can you share some background on the vision behind NPR One?

Jeremy Pennycook: The project began charged with the task of reinventing radio as a digitally native platform. This gave us a mandate to infuse the legacy and ethos NPR represents in a manner suited for consumption through a mobile-centric experience. Crafting an interface with audio as the primary asset wasn’t something our digital media team had taken on before.

Charting this new territory, we realized we needed to blend many of the values public radio represents into one streamlined app. We knew it had to be inclusive of local content. We needed to marry our editorial judgment with the power of data. And above all, it had to be simple, yet rewarding.

With that vision laid out, we built a community of testers who beta tested the app for over a year before our first public release. We iterated on both the interface and the audio experience for months until we were confident we had a vehicle to push us forward into a new generation of listening.

NPR One is more than just an app, but a new platform for NPR’s award-winning content. What have been the biggest challenges in developing an audio-first experience?

Dan Newman: One of the biggest challenges is providing appropriate context in an audio-first experience. On-air, everything is realtime, and is stitched together by hosts who provide context for a given story. When we present audio on the web, there’s a whole lot of context that comes along with it by way of bylines, timestamps, headlines, and imagery. In NPR One, our challenge is to provide some of that same context without overwhelming the UI with metadata—especially because we know our app often won’t even be on-screen while in-use. These challenges have led to some creative solutions, including an impressive amount of editorial curation to ensure that content in your flow is as current and accurate as possible, audio introductions for ‘archival’ pieces (so you know that you’re hearing something that’s relevant, but wasn’t recorded recently), and voice-responsive promotions for new shows you might be interested in hearing.

JP: If we are doing things right, your phone probably stays in your pocket. NPR is the perfect companion to your commute, cooking, or any activity where your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied. We had to come up with some new ways to alert users of what was going on without asking them to be staring at the screen the whole time. Most of our team is used to crafting visual solutions to user problems. It’s just not something we had much experience with nor can you look around the industry for many models. Luckily, we had a strong representative of the editorial team who was able to help guide us to unique interaction mechanisms based in audio. Nonetheless, it continues to be a challenge for us to think aurally first.

You’ll have one of the first apps on the Apple Watch. What unique opportunities does the UI of a smartwatch provide for NPR One?
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DN: Apple is fond of saying that Apple Watch is their “most personal device yet”, and I think that’s an accurate assessment of the possibilities of a smartwatch. From what we’ve seen thus far in usage of Android Wear devices and Pebble, wearables provide the opportunity for digital connections that are less obtrusive than ever before. A quick glance at your watch can give you updates on things you care about, without the overhead of pulling out your phone—where you invariably get distracted by email or Facebook, and get sucked out of the real world. These devices also provide for greater contextual awareness than ever before, so you have the right information for the current time, location, and activity.

For NPR One, the opportunity is twofold: first, we’re an app that’s generally designed to not be looked at, as mentioned previously. This means that functions that don’t map onto the system-level media controls—things like search, marking stories as interesting, ‘accepting’ a recommended show when we play a teaser for you, etc.—are often at least a few taps away. With Apple Watch, we’re able to make those controls much more accessible, so you’re better able to personalize your listening experience. Secondly, we’re able to use the screen to provide a bit more context for the audio by showing you the primary image for the story (when we have one), and displaying the short description of the story. Arguably, we could to this in the mobile apps as well, but it’s far more relevant when you can view these things at a glance.

In addition to smartwatches, NPR One exists in multiple other iterations — on smartphone, Chromecast, the web. How has the development process worked for the different platforms? Does the product and/or experience differ from one to another?

JP: We’ve done our best to learn and iterate using a lean methodology. Our framework allows us to do constant A/B testing around what our users actually hear. There have been so many dead-ends and red herrings, yet we’ve had the time and space to try again and again. Unlike many other projects I’ve worked on, we were able to go back and change things when our assumptions were wrong.

Working on different platforms has provided valuable learnings we’ve been able to take an apply to another instance of the NPR One experience. For example, we played around with images early on during the beta on the iPhone version. But we never go them to a place where we were happy with how the fit into an audio-centric experience. When we took on Chromecast, we were able to put that learning to good use.

DN: It’s cliché, but our aim is provide the right experience for the right platform. On mobile, it means a focused design that provides a ‘just press play’ experience, and minimizing navigation depth so as to never be more than two taps away from the currently-playing audio. On the web, we can easily link to related stories and supporting content, so we attempt to do so. Chromecast is an interesting case because it’s really more of an extension than a platform unto itself. Because we have that large canvas available to us, we supplement the audio with imagery when we have it, and use the display to visually reinforce the NPR ‘voice’. And to us, wearables are about empowering the user to more rapidly access information and take quick actions. The core experience and value proposition remain unchanged throughout—a thoughtfully curated, personalized flow of the best news and storytelling that public radio has to offer. But we consciously design each iteration to take advantage of the strengths and limitations of the platform.

NPR One is personalized, calling up your playlists but also curating recommended content based on your community and listening history. What has the process been like developing content management for NPR One?

JP: Blending the institutional knowledge of 40 years of making great radio with an innovative product development team has been a fantastic combination. The secret sauce is all of the learning we’ve done around what we call the flow. From early on in the process, we had an understanding of the mix of content which makes each chunk of Morning Edition of All Things Considered diverse, informative, and engaging. But despite these well-intentioned ideas, we were missing some key ingredients. It took the addition of someone from the radio newsroom – Sara Sarasohn – to help us understand the tapestry of public radio. She pointed out the disparity between the types of metadata and categorization powering our website and the methodology of our news-magazine shows.

With a newly enlightened understanding of the creation process, we were able to build tools for NPR One inside our existing content management system to power the type of decision making that happens everyday on both those. This allowed us to leverage and existing infrastructure They certainly have room for improvement, but they allow Sara and her editorial vision to be made manifest inside the app. We absolutely could not do what we’ve done without her ability to connect us back to the soul of radio.

What advice do you have for designing new digital experiences and mobile apps, based on lessons learned developing NPR One?

DN: The thing that I’ve been most impressed by is this team’s relentless focus on our listeners. Everyone on the team asks whether a new feature, or button, or widget is actually enhancing the listener experience. It has reinforced for me the importance of including every member of the team on the design process. We build our best experiences when everyone is contributing.

JP: Focus on the core value. There’s no shortage of awesome features to build for any digital product. But for whatever your choose to work on, constantly ask yourself why? When everyone – engineers to designers – has an understanding of the purpose and what you hope to accomplish for each feature you build everything better. A shared vision for the path forward really helps galvanize a team.