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The Making of the NPR News iPhone App

by Demian Perry
Aug 17, 2009

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Demian Perry

What I love most about our new NPR News iPhone app is the way the design combines the plentiful content choices of the Internet with the effortless functionality of an old transistor radio. But while the app's interface is simple, its creation was complex, involving dozens of contributors, from designers and developers to business strategists and communication specialists, all working together for more than half a year. That process began early in 2009, with our search for a development partner who was familiar with the usability practices of the iPhone operating system.

Developer selection

After collecting recommendations from our contacts at Apple and at various digital media organizations across the country, we assembled a list of candidates and conducted interviews. We were looking for a developer who would listen to our needs and challenge our opinions. We found a good fit with Bottle Rocket, a Dallas-based app specialist with 10 apps under its belt and substantial audio experience. What we liked most about Bottle Rocket was that its CEO, Calvin Carter, listened carefully to our project plan, made notes, and patiently convinced us that everything we thought we knew about the iPhone was wrong. Most important, Calvin emphasized that the optimal user experience would be a fusion of the signature appearance and functionality of NPR.org and the standard functionality of the iPhone.

Editorial proposition

In our early brainstorming sessions, we defined the 'editorial proposition' of the app. We asked two important questions:

  • What would regular NPR listeners expect us to create?
  • How could we use the iPhone to distribute our content to new audiences?

Our research department assembled a group of loyal NPR listeners and heavy iPhone users to help us answer these questions. It was clear that our most loyal listeners expected us to stay close to our roots in audio journalism and create a passive listening experience that was as simple as switching on the radio. But it was also clear from our user interviews that there was a new kind of media consumer on the horizon, one who expected 24/7 coverage, time-shifted broadcast content, and the ability to actively customize a news browsing experience. In this group, we found omnivorous news junkies who regularly consumed newspapers, television, internet and radio, often at the same time.

User Experience

Early pencil sketches, as seen in the above picture, showed a user interface that would clearly distinguish between reading and listening. Every story listed in the news section would have a full-text story — and would thus be primarily a section for reading — but would also clearly indicate which stories had associated audio. Conversely, every story listed in the program section would have audio content, but only a short description: this would be the section of the app targeted towards listening.

We also began to imagine two different kinds of listening. We wanted to create a passive listening experience where:

  • you could turn on the radio while cleaning out the garage or exercising
  • your programming would be done for you, and
  • you would constantly be surprised by new topics and stories.

For this passive listening experience, we sketched out an area where a live stream of the listener's favorite stations would never be more than a touch away.

For this app to succeed, however, it couldn't just be a radio-like experience. We needed to create a place for active listening as well. This would be the section of the app where:

  • you could dive deep into a subject of personal interest
  • you could program your own stories, and
  • you hear only those stories that had caught your attention moments before.

We imagined a playlist that you could listen to immediately, or build now and listen to later. We also considered how the playlist might serve both as a way to keep track of stories you had not yet heard, as well as those you might listen to over and over again.
Lastly, we wanted to create a way to browse the news and build your playlist at the same time that you were listening to a stream, so that the omnivorous news consumer could keep both eyes and ears occupied.

Development

Based on our own experience with iPhone apps, we decided that performance was at least as important as features (this was one point that Calvin agreed with us on). To achieve this performance goal, the app was built almost entirely on NPR's Story API, which allowed us to deliver tight data packets that would ensure speedy navigation within the app. Station streams, however, presented a larger challenge. To begin with, NPR didn't have direct stream links for any of its stations, so we built a Web spider that identified and captured more than 300 iPhone-compatible station streams. After that first pass, we worked with our station representatives to manually test each stream. In the process they found enough new streams to double our database. All of these streams are delivered to the app from NPR's Station Finder API.

Shortly after we began development, Public Interactive (the division of NPR that manages digital media properties of many public radio stations) came to us with an exciting opportunity: they offered us access to their database of program schedules for NPR stations. By combining direct stream links with program schedule information, PI would make it possible for users to find stations playing a particular program right now, and then listen to that program live. We had never done anything like this before, but an iPhone app seemed an ideal opportunity to launch this new service.

Since the launch, we've learned a lot about what features NPR fans expect from their NPR app. We plan to make those changes in the next couple of weeks. Later this week, we'll give you a sneak peak of what's coming in the next version of the NPR News app.

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