Designing in a Tiny Frame: Martin McClellan on Mobile First

Every design starts with limitations and goals. Although people complain that mobile is so limiting, “the frame is whatever you’re designing in,” according to Breaking News app designer Martin McClellan. The limitation is in how you focus because the screen is small, but it also doubles as the opportunity. “Book design has been around for 600 years and theres still a lot of innovation happening,” McClellan said.


McClellan’s mobile-first mindset aims to simplify above all. Here’s what he follows.

  1. Cut the cruft, and blur the screen – what stands out, and what is the most important?
  2. Torpedo the dark patterns – they will frustrate your user. The layer of interaction is so pointed on mobile that you’ll create negative reactions if you don’t lose them.
  3. Work on inventing ad experiences that people actually like. Being able to target users is something that news is not doing; designers should be innovating experiences to build revenue.
  4. How do buyers get ads on your platform?
  5. Don’t undersell yourself.

Mobile will not only surpass the desktop, but will erode it, according to McClellan. Year-over-year growth shows that in the news industry, mobile use is up 23 percent while mobile-only use is up 55 percent. That’s 55 percent more users connecting only through their phone, not on a desktop.

Breaking News is a standalone startup in NBC news. They bring together original news sources to streamline content. “The news field is really overwhelming. That’s one of the reasons we made our app,” McClellan says. It’s hard to sort through stuff on Twitter, so Breaking News editors become those filters. Users subscribe to push alerts based on topics or location.

Users can follow events as they unfold by subscribing to topics on the Breaking News app. Courtesy of Martin McClellan.

Bringing users into the Breaking News app continues to pose problems. Much of the app’s attention comes from its 7.4 million Twitter followers. Relationships with groups like create a two-way street for content linking to bring users in. “How do you make a product that people want to use?” McClellan poses. Attracting users is “the crux of the issue”

McClellan’s philosophy brings together his experiences in web, journalism and design.

  1. Design is subjective, but if you can’t defend it, you haven’t done the work.
  2. Team harmony and cohesion is sometimes more important than being right.
  3. Proving your point in the right way sometimes leads to team cohesion.
  4. Engineering and design should be married from tip-to-stem, especially in the newsroom. All young designers should learn to code.
  5. Perfection is academic. If you don’t ship, you don’t eat.

At Breaking News, the product side is self-driven with a culture that emphasizes generating innovation while also not burning out. McClellan pushes design until its curbed within the brand’s boundaries.

McClellan arrived at Breaking News after “took his twenties off” working in guitar shops. If he didn’t have a direction by 30, he would go back to school. And so he did, at Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle. As a self proclaimed “news junkie” McClellan jumped on the opportunity to join the Breaking News team.

And finally, here is a meditation on the limits and freedoms of tiny screens that guides McClellan’s workflow today.

  1. Don’t be uptight about consistency in anything but the product.
  2. Mockups, concepts, wireframes and hi-resolution designs are not the product.
  3. Use the lowest resolution you need to communicate what you need to communicate.
  4. The work is the documentation.