Daniel Newman: Designing NPR’s Listening Experience

HIDC-600x50-bannerheadshot-2014-square1-300x300As deputy creative director for NPR’s Digital Media Group, Daniel Newman works with a multifaceted team of interaction designers and visual product designers to create NPR-branded digital products and services. We reached out to him to learn more about “Designing the Listening Experience,” which Newman will be speaking about October 6 at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago.

What are your primary responsibilities as deputy creative director for NPR’s Digital Media Group?

My role within the design team is twofold. First, my background is in user experience and interaction design, so I contribute directly on the strategy and architecture for our NPR One apps. Second, I function as a team lead of sorts, working with all of the designers and scrum teams to find connections between our various projects, to provide design feedback and to serve as a point of contact for design within the larger organization.

Our team designs experiences that meet listeners across the places they are and will be—websites, smartphones, tablets, connected cars, connected homes, wearables, etc.—and it’s my job to help facilitate that work.


NPR One Site | Read more about NPR One here.

You work on NPR One, an audio app that connects you to a stream of curated public radio news, stories and podcasts. The app has been described as an “out-of-sight” mobile app — a personalized audio experience designed to be heard, and, when done right, keeps you from looking at your device. How has designing an “audio-first” experienced differed from working with other types of apps?

Most apps want you to look at them. Even other audio apps have busy imagery and many layers of navigational hierarchy. In contrast, the NPR One team was very focused on crafting an experience that is as simple and as focused as just turning on the radio. Because the app is meant to mostly be heard and not seen, the team focused on simple, self-evident controls that have a minimal learning curve—that way, when the listener takes her phone out of her pocket, there’s no doubt about the action that she needs to take to adjust her listening experience.

One of the biggest design challenges is providing necessary context in an audio-first experience. On the radio, everything is real time. It is stitched together by hosts who provide context and transition between stories. When we present audio on the web, there’s a lot of context that comes along with it by way of bylines, time stamps, headlines and imagery.

In NPR One, our challenge is to provide some of that same context without overwhelming the UI with metadata—especially because we know that most users won’t see what we put on screen. These challenges have led to some creative solutions, including an impressive amount of editorial curation to ensure that the content in the flow is as current and accurate as possible, audio introductions for “archival” pieces (so the listener know that she’s hearing something that’s relevant, but wasn’t recorded recently), and audio invitations for new shows that the listener might be interested in hearing.

One thing you mention being really focused on is the challenge of adding new features to an app while avoiding bloat and retaining the hallmark features of the app. Can you talk about why this is so important when users seem to be clamoring for more bells and whistles?

We work diligently to listen to our listeners. Whether it’s via App Store reviews, our Facebook community or the listeners who tweet at @NPRone, there’s no shortage of perspectives about how we should evolve the app—and we regularly engage these folks in conversations so we can better understand their needs and desires.

However, there’s danger in hewing too closely to what people say they want. As the old Henry Ford chestnut goes, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” We work to distill the underlying motivations behind listeners’ requests, and use those stories to drive our product forward. For example, people have told us they wanted to be able to subscribe to podcasts—but there are already a ton of apps that do that! Instead, we dug deeper to understand that people really were looking for a way to express explicit affinity for a show, and let that influence their listening experience. As a result, we built the ability to “follow” a podcast, which creates a more nuanced influence on what you’ll hear in your customized NPR station.

Of course, sometimes it really is as simple as giving the audience what they want. When the team looked at the most common words in positive reviews on the App Store and Google Play, the words “sleep timer” came up very frequently. Again, these were people who were already rating us positively—giving us 4- or 5-star reviews—but who were telling us that we could further enhance their experience by giving them the ability to fall asleep with NPR on. So we built that functionality, which led one listener to remark, “These people get me.”

What’s your favorite thing about working at NPR?

The best thing about working at NPR is the commitment to our mission. I have the best co-workers in the world because everyone here is trying to make the world a better place by “creating a more informed public.” On the digital front, we have amazingly talented developers, designers and business folks who are uniquely focused on serving our listeners and our station partners. These are people who are talented enough to work at any startup or blue chip company in the world, but they’ve chosen to come to NPR because of our unique mission-driven culture.

Oh, and the Tiny Desk Concerts that happen 50 feet from my desk aren’t too shabby, either.

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra during Tiny Desk at NPR. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra during Tiny Desk at NPR. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)

If you could be a guest on or host of any NPR program, which one would it be?

I would love to be a contestant on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. In particular, as a regular consumer of both news and fiction, I’d like to think that I’d be good at the ‘Bluff The Listener’ game—but I’d probably just pick whatever crazy tale Paula Poundstone makes up, and end up losing.

Amid changes in technology & content consumption, the NPR design team bridges digital & physical design to take in-house design to new levels. Read about it here.

What are you especially excited about and/or challenged to be working on right now?

This is truly an exciting time to be a digital designer. Between the proliferation of smart ‘things’ (watches, home automation components, in-car entertainment systems that aren’t completely terrible, etc.) and the power of data intelligence, it feels like we’re in a golden age of being able to build the right products for the right people.

For NPR One, the challenge is this: How do we continue to grow and evolve the listening experience across all of those new platforms and using all of the data that we’re collecting while keeping it cohesive, fast and focused? Part of it is an interface challenge—surfacing new features without adding bloat, as we talked about earlier.

Another part is taking advantage of the insights that we glean from listenership—if we know that a group of listeners likes a certain type of content at a certain time, how can we employ that insight at scale, across hundreds of thousands of listening sessions.

It’s tremendously exciting to be on the front lines, helping my team figure out the answers to these sorts of questions.

You’re doing a session called “Designing the Listening Experience” at HIDC Chicago. Can you tell us a little bit about your talk?   

I’m very excited about HIDC Chicago—a conference made up exclusively of real-world case studies is exactly the type of event I’d want to attend (were I not already speaking at it).

So, I’m going to do my best to showcase the end-to-end process of what it took for the team to bring NPR One to fruition, and what we’ve been learning over the past year since we had our soft launch. I’ll discuss a number of methods that the team has employed and share some of our research and experimental findings. I’m also going to talk about how we frame our work in terms of the larger organizational mission here at NPR, and how that is made manifest in the end product.

Ultimately, I hope that attendees can learn from both our successes and our missteps, and use our example to build more audience-centric, mission-driven experiences.

If you’re a user experience designer or NPR fan and would like to learn more about how NPR One’s backstory, don’t miss Daniel Newman’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago October 5-7. Register now to reserve your spot!