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News design trends in Google’s Chrome apps

As a proud recent pilot tester for the Google Chrome Notebook, I’ve switched over to the device as my primary laptop and have thus been consuming more and more news through the web apps in the Google Chrome Web app store.

Because Chrome web apps have yet to be adopted at a mass consumer level, it’s an opportunity for news orgs to experiment with new displays of news without really impacting ad potential or frustrating the standard user. And that’s just what they’re doing — experimenting.

If these apps (which are all accessible from a web browser, even if you don’t have Chrome or the Chrome notebook) are any indicator of where the future of news design is headed, here are the trends I’m noticing:

Grid layouts

Every news app in the Google web store has a drastically different layout from its respective site and iPad app. The most common layout is a grid-style set of tiles which includes headlines, excerpts and photos for various sections or topics, as shown below in the NPR app, Salon app, and New York Times app.

Keyboard shortcuts

Switching amongst stories is intuitive in the Chrome store. It never made much sense from a UX perspective for a user to use the browser’s back button, then find the next story on the list to click in order to go through posts chronologically. Most of the Chrome apps allow you to navigate amongst articles and sections using simple keyboard strokes.

Full screen glory

The beauty of the web apps (especially when viewed on the Chrome Notebook), is that they can be viewed in full-screen mode. This means no more boxed-in layouts that don’t change depending on the width of your screen.

Multi-column text display

Mimicking the print consumption standard, USA Today and New York Times‘ apps feature content in column layouts rather than in a full-width display.

Multi-paneled layouts

Much like iPad and iPhone layouts, the Huffington Posts’s Chrome app, News Glide, features panels that slide in from the side to display stories, of which you can close to reveal the grid beneath, or use back and forward arrows to navigate to next and previous stories.

Big, beautiful video and imagery

Sports Illustrated’s app is entirely image-based and The Onion’s app is entirely video-based — meaning no text-based content on either. In fact if the URL is any indication, The Onion’s app is a preview of what’s to come for The Onion on the Google TV platform.

In-browser notifications

The New York Times’ app displays on-screen breaking news news alerts that pop up in the bottom corner of the Chrome browser.

Offline reading

Even when you’re not connected to the Internet, apps like the New York Times’ allows you to continue reading all the stories that were previously loaded last time you were online, meaning you always have access to lightweight reading materials, even if it’s not always the most up-to-date.

Customizability

The apps let you choose which content you want to display and how you want that content to be displayed. The best example of this is the New York Times’ app (the winner of the Chrome news app experience so far, in my opinion), which has a set of display options that offer different ways of viewing content. The AOL News app allows you to choose which topics you view by default.

Shortcomings

Although flashy and fun, there are a few shortcomings that need to be addressed before this format becomes the future of news consumption:

  • Lack of permalinks. If you want to link to a story within an app, the resulting URL leads to the standard website URL.
  • No rich media. Aside fro the apps that are based entirely on video or audio, I have yet to see any apps that integrate video and audio within stories.
  • Based on episodic storytelling. These apps work great for a news format based on tons of articles being reproduced every day. But what about stories that are told in format of data or long-living stories that could be built in wiki format? Sticking with episodic story display discourages newsrooms from thinking of new ways to tell stories.
  • Where are the comments? Although this is a point of debate in the news industry, the inability for commenting and direct user interaction within the sites is worrisome.
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