Lean Forward, Lean Back: Tablet News Experiences

Insights from the Poynter Institute’s major study of news and storytelling on tablets. The study explores the way that elements of touch, gesture, interactivity and position come together to create engaging, satisfying journalism. The research combines usability testing in the U.S. and Europe with worldwide industry expertise on what it takes to create and sustain excellence in publication.




There is a science to design (60% formula, 40% creativity). What people say they do/need from a UX is not always correlated to what their eyes tell us about what draws them to read something.

This research was focused on story selection, so has the most impact on the discovery screens such as the front page, bucket screens, category screens, etc., and the way stories are organized in relationship to each other. Less on the structure of individual stories themselves.

The Tablet

“You do not simply dump all you have prepared for your print edition into a smartphone/tablet, or onto a website.” Smartphone is about short-form journo (and breaking news): “editioning, the creation of mini-newspapers and mini-magazines”. Tablet (and print) is about long-form. Tablet is exceeding smartphone site visits: curated content, updates, replica of print. “Lean forward, lean back” is about a cycle of checking latest updates (morning-day, smartphone) with taking time to read a long-form story (evenings, tablet). 70% more pages are viewed with tablets because of the leisure mode.

The new news tablet experience (beyond print): “What is the lead story” vs. “what is the tablet-friendly story? Tablet difference from print: Fewer buckets of info. Designing for the tablet is designing for a multi-sensory experience: the eye, the brain, and the finger. The finger makes things happen (touch and event). E.g., if I see a photo from a theater production, I want something to happen when I touch it — like, see a video clip.

The first ten seconds of the tablet experience: immediately transmit the brand but then move on/beyond immediately. You don’t need headlines + text, you need images instead. The images are the headlines, and lead you to the stories.

Creating a tablet experience should start from scratch and cover storytelling, pop-ups, navigation, UX. You cannot take what you’re doing in print and try to fit that model/framework into the tablet.

Evolution of using tablet experience in journalism

  • The PDF
  • The PDF with updates
  • The curated edition


Tracking review was started late due to cognitive psychology basis: Cognition of a visual field begins at around 300 milliseconds.

The exit interviews

Preference for using tablet in the landscape position. Preference over image-based layouts (carousel/tile) than the traditional print column layout. Columns express the curated/editorial background of a particular layout — tiled images do the same. Carousel, while the most popular, equalizes the content and hides any sort of curation/editorial judgment. Titles needed on top of images to prevent guesswork.

The behaviors

People entered a page through a dominant element (the eye is drawn to the largest thing — see document design principles). In lieu of a clear dominant element, humans are drawn to faces first.

People fixated 18 times (within a few seconds) before choosing the first story (reconnaissance: scanning, narrowing down, browsing). The less early reconnaissance conducted, the more likely a person would not finish reading the selected story. More fixation occurances led to longer/deeper reading experiences.

Bail out point
Something at around 70-80 seconds into a story that draws them in further, keeps their interest hot, like a pull-out. But that element must be of high quality to the reader.

67% used the native web browser controls instead of on-page navigation (e.g., the logo to go home, or a nav breadcrumb, etc).

Photo galleries
thumbnails were not used as much as Next/Previous tools (allows me to keep my finger in the same space but effect progress).

Half of the users were methodical readers (top-to-bottom, older “Printnets”) and half were scanners (jump headlines, 18-28 “Digital natives”, but may end up reading longer because of a more effective selection strategy?).

60% of the users touched the screen often (intimate readers, moved content into a smaller area of view) vs more hands-off users (detached readers, viewed ALL the content on the screen before replacing it with the next; batching).

Side note on usability testing: Before the testing of prototypes starts, let users interact with other “real” environments to get comfortable with the tech. Harmless browsing that washes away that first few minutes of learning a new environment so you could focus on just the interaction with the prototype.


This research grants primacy of the visual / interactive graphic as a part of storytelling. What findings would a similar study of blind users produce? How will this new medium for journalism change the affordances given to accessibility contexts?