Tuesday, 15 January 2008

News on the go: Are PDA and Smartphone versions of newspapers really handheld friendly?

Reading the daily edition of your favourite newspaper on a small handheld device is certainly a very convenient way to keep up with current events (and escape the hassle of folding and unfolding large sheets of paper while commuting). But despite the increasing popularity, it seems that these mobile news editions still lack in basic design and usability principles that could improve a lot the users’ experience.

Media companies all over the world seem be targeting heavily this market for "news services on the go". Basically all the big well known newspapers and other journalism companies already have made available their PDA/Smartphone editions (or news channels), with especially created mobile content. Some examples are The Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, BBC, CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

There are 2 major companies providing the technology for this: AvantGo (which offers a large selection of free content) and Roundpoint (with a smaller number of publications offered via paid subscription). Both technologies are compatible with Windows Mobile devices and the content can be downloaded, either OTA or via synchronisation (between the handled and a PC connected to the web). The process is not difficult, but sometimes it can be slow.

Up to here, there’s no problem; the setback is that accessing some of these mobile editions isn't such a joy. Based in HTML, the pages incorporate several elements from the web which on small screens do not seem to be well optimized.

A recent academic research evaluated major mobile news services available in the UK and noticed that all of them show some degree of design and usability problems. On the whole, menu items and commands are too close too each other and thus easy mistaken by the stylus; editorial elements that could improve readability are underused (i.e. subheads, summaries, etc), as well are hardware functions, which constrains one-hand navigation with. Another important issue is that texts tend to be too long, requiring extensive and tiresome vertical scrolling (and there are no features such markers or widgets to aid with that).

The ITN news channel (from the ITV group) is an example of poor design: The page elements are cluttered; links and pictures are badly positioned and there is not even a logo or name identifying the publication. The Guardian is another channel not very pleasurable to navigate, especially on a Smartphone. Page items are
too close too each and there are still ads and other unnecessary elements.

The BBC News channel is not bad. It seems to be more organised than the others so far, but it has too much information displayed together and no white spaces are used to give a rest to the readers’ eyes. Another annoyance is that there are no shortcuts to move directly from one article to other, so the user is always forced to go back and forward to the main menu.

The PDA version of The Times manages to deliver a slightly better navigation experience. It has still some issues, but it is doing well in some points. The main menu is easy to visualise and the headlines are well spaced. It also uses visual cues, such as bullet lists and subheads in bold, as well as shortcuts. Other that doesn’t seem bad is the mobile version of the news agency Reuters, which uses a clean layout and good colour selection.

Overall it appears that some of the major design problems exist because media companies in general seem to be reutilizing the same material that is published in their newspapers and news websites for the creation of their mobile editions. Therefore, particular design solutions, respecting the physical and contextual characteristics of PDAs and Smartphones, end up being neglected.

It's a little disappointing, but since handhelds are a fast-growing medium it might be just a step away for them to be no longer regarded as secondary mediums for the delivery of news.

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