News Leadership 3.0

December 20, 2011

Luke Wroblewski on how news organizations can go “mobile first”

By now, most daily news publishers are making at least some attempt to make their content accessible on cell phones and tablets. But usually their strategies focus on “shovelware”—automatically repackaging content produced for the computer-based web, with scant consideration for how and why people use mobile devices.

In a recent interview, Luke Wroblewski (a top expert on mobile design and usability) explained why news publishers should start thinking “mobile first”—and how they can achieve that goal to get ahead of the next disruptive wave of media technology…

By Amy Gahran

Wroblewski is author of the new book Mobile First, which makes the case for why websites and applications should be designed for mobile first and how web design teams can make this crucial shift.

In a recent blog post, Wroblewski noted several interesting statistics about how and when people access news on mobile devices. For instance:

  • NPR saw 30% more visitors to their mobile site than to their iPhone app. The iPhone app, though, had over four times as many page views.”
  • According to comScore research: “On a weekday, mobile phones are used to consume news steadily throughout the day, while the use of computers for news consumption is heaviest during work hours. Tablet usage peaks in the later evening hours.”
  • “The Financial Times mobile web experience has 1 million registered users who account for 20% of the outlet’s online page views, and 15% of new digital consumer subscriptions. Financial Times users who register on mobile devices are 2.5 times more likely to subscribe. 45% of the 1 million registered users add the web app to their home screen.”

How can news publishers use data like this to hone their mobile strategies, and what should they understand about how the mobile experience is evolving?

One of the key challenges, Wroblewski said, is that digital audiences increasingly are active across more than one screen over the course of a day—and they expect their media experience to follow them, from the computer to the tablet to the phone.

“You need to consider strategic issues to engage your users across the device they’re using,” said Wroblewski. “How do you have synchronization for users so they’re not starting over on each device? How do you make sure you content is rendered in appropriate manner across mobile devices? Those are the problems you need to solve in order to keep them engaged.”

Adopting responsive web design is a big part of the solution, he noted. This involves using established web tools like cascading stylesheets (CSS) and Javascript, as well as emerging ones like HTML5 capabilities, to intelligently reflow and reformat content in a manner that appropriate to a device’s display, user interface, and bandwidth capabilities.

This is where the “mobile first” mindset becomes paramount. Wroblewski advises news publishers to “focus and prioritize your digital offerings by embracing the constraints inherent in mobile design. With responsive web design, you can set a baseline mobile experience first, then progressively enhance or adapt your layout as device capabilities change.”

In practice this means that your processes for content, design, and production should first focus on creating a compelling user experience via the simplest, leanest digital experience you offer: the mobile web via a cell phone web browser. From there publishers can scale up to larger, richer experiences. This is more likely to succeed with all your audiences, compared to the more common approach: shoehorning content originally created for the computer-based web, print, or broadcast onto mobile devices.

So far many news organizations have invested most of their initial mobile resources into building native smartphone apps. Wroblewski notes that the mobile web is a more logical place to start—something I’ve noted before, too.

“If all you’ve done for mobile is create an app, all the links people are sharing via social media and other means, those don’t open apps. Which means your potential users get a crappy end result. So make sure you have a mobile-optimized website.”

After you have a compelling mobile web presence, then you can move on to native apps for smartphones and tablets which focus on what they can do better than the mobile web.

“Give people the types of media that your app is optimized for,” said Wroblewski. “For instance, audio in web browser is not great—but in native apps, you can use audio and video better to create more engagement.”

He encourages publishers to rethink the type of experience they offer by capitalizing on the unique capabilities of mobile devices. “Smartphones know the user’s location, the direction they’re facing, and they have audio, video, and photo input options. Increasingly, they can also handle voice commands, too. Look at what Instapaper does with their iPhone/iPad reading app: they use the phone’s accelerometer as a way to control scrolling, just by tilting the phone.”

Responsive web design can help publishers support a good experience as a user switches from one device to the next—but it doesn’t keep users from having to “start over” each time they access your news from a different device.

“Synchronization is trickier because when people change browsers or devices you can’t rely on cookies to know who they are and what they were looking at last,” said Wroblewski.

In talks he’s given, Wroblewski has railed against the unthinking overuse of web forms to create engagement.

“News organizations usually use some kind of registration or subscription process that relies on web forms,” he said. “But there are more lightweight things you can do to focus on user benefits from continuing to get your news. What’s the minimal amount of commitment that you can get from people, to engage them? For instance, for registration, all you really need to request is an e-mail address. You don’t even need password.”

Some publishers are wary of the mobile experience because they’re uncertain of how well it will support their advertising-based business model—and this is a valid concern. Banner ads generally fail miserably with mobile audiences, and emerging technologies such as voice-based interfaces can eliminate opportunities to display ads. Consequently, Wroblewski believes that news organizations should start experimenting now figure out new revenue-producing products that aren’t just about displaying advertising.

“Change the ads you’re selling,” he said. “There are lots of other ways to make money besides shoving banner ads in people’s faces. Already, services like Instapaper, and the new Reader feature in mobile Safari, strip out your ads. If you don’t give users a good experience of your content, someone else will.”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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