How tablets are changing the shape of news

First time at SXSW. My God there’s a lot on. From “naked ladies reading” (I kid you not) to a talk on “the Consumerisation of Revolutions”…via “the architecture of the air”…where to begin? A Hot Polish dog at Frank’s, of course. But then?

For my virginal SXSW experience, I decide to avoid the esoteric and the wilfully weird in favour of a sensible-sounding talk on something I know little about: designing tablet news experiences. It turns out be a good call. As an ex-journalist whose agency’s clients now include Metro, I find it properly interesting.

First, Dr. Mario Garcia tells us what he’s learnt while working with a host of publishers around the globe, taking print publications into digital form. His main theme is the shift from the primacy of words to the primacy of imagery – something, he says, that editors everywhere are finding it hard to accept. Much as the theme itself is familiar, I even balk at it myself as he predicts that headlines may soon be a thing of the past. But Sarah Quinn from Poynter Research has done extensive studies into it. And, do you know what? It turns out he may be right.

She tested three archetypal tablet designs – from traditional, in which headlines and text links fill most of the space around one hero image; to “tile” where different sized images with cover lines fill the screen (think Flipbook); to “carousel” (all images again, but without hierarchy, more or less like a gallery). The same content, then, arranged in different ways and then tested with different ages of “reader”, all of whom had owned a tablet for at least six months.

The results? 83% said the traditional style was the most familiar. But 50% preferred the carousel. At which point Mario interjects: “the results are always the same! Someone tell the editors!”

And the designers, I think to myself. After all, a carousel is the archetype that offers the least room for creativity.

Of course, not all tablet publications will take this form. No-one is saying that. Everyone, even Mario, is still learning in this space. As he himself said, the overriding lesson is that change is hard.

But, boy, do we all need to embrace it.

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