Sony brings business divisions and
design teams together to create new value.
Sony’s “News Suite,” an innovative take on helping users stay informed, uses a “2-in-1” concept that delivers both standard news and personalized content in a single app interface. Since its overhaul in January 2016, the app has reached 7 million monthly active users in 70 countries across the globe—and a big reason for that dramatic growth spurt has been the app’s design. We sat down with the project leader from the business division and two user interface designers to learn more about how design played a role in creating the app and what the future holds for app development.
Deputy General Manager
Multi Screen UX Service Dept.
UX Planning and Operation Div.
Art Director, User Interface
Designer, User Interface
Browse, discover, and enjoy: Molding content of all kinds into your very own news app
— Why did Sony want to develop a news app?
Ueki: News portal apps have carved out a pretty sizable niche in the Japanese market, but Japan is actually the exception to the rule: news apps still have quite a bit of room to grow abroad. Things continue to evolve in Japan, too, with user experiences always taking new forms and technological advances in artificial intelligence driving development.
We’ve poured our energies into helping people get the most out of all the content out there on the Internet in a way that’s right for them. One of the biggest content areas is news, a segment that people explore on a day-to-day basis and the focus of our latest project: News Suite.
Akagawa: The question that we had to deal with was how people can use the Internet to get the kinds of information they like. For most people, it’s really hard to zero in on exactly the content they want right out of the gate—they tend to start by looking at a pretty wide range of stuff first, get a basic grasp of the available content, and then pinpoint the information they’re interested in.
That’s where the idea of the “J model” comes from. We kind of visualized the whole process of finding target information as looking like a “J”: you start at the top, swimming on the surface of the vast “information ocean,” and then plunge down into an area you’re interested in. Once you’ve made the dive into the deeper reaches, you find something that really catches your eye and veer toward that—hence the curl at the bottom of the J.
Ueki: When it comes to information, most people have a hard time identifying their own likes and dislikes by name—they need a base of general, wide-ranging information before they know where they want to go with it. That’s one of the insights we got from our user interviews.
Akagawa: Knowing how important it was to give users a smooth, direct route to locating the information they like and delving deeper into content, we decided to focus on the structure of the app first. We came up with as many patterns as we could and tested them on groups of users, who eventually said that the easiest setup was an interface with two tabs: “News” and “My Feeds.”
Nothing quirky, nothing daring, nothing off the wall: Innovation doesn’t always need an unorthodox user experience
— The app has a pretty basic user interface, a look that you see in a lot of browsers. How did you arrive at that design?
Ueki: Nothing really leaps out at you, right (laughs)? Well, that was part of the plan: we kept asking the designers to make everything as familiar as possible, avoiding any new twists on the standard operating feel. If you make every last part of an app brand-new, it takes a lot of time and effort for users to get a hang of using the app. That can be a stressful process, really. What we wanted to do was to provide a new experience in a no-frills operational framework, one that everyone would already have an intuitive grasp of. After the design team came up with lots of ideas, we worked the concepts out together and eventually arrived at a simple, straightforward design.
Tateishi: The innovative piece of News Suite is that it brings two components that are usually separate—a standard news app and an RSS reader for aggregating your personal news selections—into one app. We knew that integrating those two elements completely might confuse new users, so we created the “News” tab for basic news and the “My Feeds” tab for personalized content. That’s a layout that first-time users will have no problem figuring out. The whole “RSS” concept can be a bit challenging for people, too, so we created a “+” tab where people can look through lists of content, pick out things they’re interested in, and add items to their feeds without having to know the nuts and bolts of how RSS feeds work. Keywords are another big feature—you can add content by just browsing and choosing trending topics. There’s nothing new about the interface; we wanted everything to be intuitive, giving the app a minimal learning curve and immediate usability.
Akagawa: A new app has to work like the apps that people are familiar with. If you go too far out of the box or get too adventurous, people are eventually going to feel overwhelmed. We concentrated on building everything the basic elements of the smartphone interface: tapping and swiping. Forcing people to learn new rules would’ve just been asking too much.
— What did you focus on when you were developing the UI design?
Akagawa: The article content was a big focus. News Suite is a news reader, after all, so we knew that the content is what was going to make or break the app.
Tateishi: One of the things we had to think about was the layout, of course: if we want to help users find content more easily, how many articles should we show on a single screen? How big should the fonts be in that layout? How can we maximize readability with that many articles on screen at a given time? Little tweaks to font sizes and line spacing can make a world of difference in how easily people can read things, so we tested out virtually every possible combination until we came up with the optimal setup.
Akagawa: News Suite is for a global audience, not just users in Japan, so we also had to do international research to figure out how much of a headline a user needs to see to know what the article’s about. I felt like we talked with the planning team about headline sizing almost every single day—part of the challenge was dealing with languages like Russian and German, which have lots of long words.
Providing an everyday information companion
— What else did you do to make articles easier to read?
Tateishi: We wanted to make sure that the screen layout would look great regardless of what articles popped up on the user’s feed, which is something that’s just too variable to make any accurate predictions of. That means making the design as versatile as possible. If you look at the top article display, for example, you’ll see a colored strip overlay that changes color based on the photo accompanying the article—the app automatically looks at the image and extracts a complementary color for the strip, making sure that the visual framing never gets in the way of the reading experience. When the top article photo has a person’s face in it, meanwhile, the app automatically zooms in on the face and trims the visual. There’s so much tuning going on behind the scenes, creating an interface that delivers a comfortable, content-centric read without ever getting visually intrusive.
Ueki: One thing that jumped out at me as we worked on the interface was how there were hardly any icons anywhere—the UI is almost entirely text-based. The design team just wouldn’t budge on that (laughs). We had them try to work in some icons just to see what it’d look like, but the end result just seemed off. I’m glad the designers stood their ground.
Akagawa: To get people to look at the articles first, we had to bring everything else down a notch. That’s why you won’t even see any icons on the main News Suite interface screen. Say there’s an app you use all the time. What would you do if the app started bringing in loud icons that you just didn’t like? What if the visual elements just weren’t your style? Seeing as how News Suite was going to be a heavy-use app, we knew that we had to make the interface as clean as we could. That meant minimizing the visual presence and cutting out any unnecessary fluff.
Ueki: The interface is so simple that it’s almost austere: it’s never forcing anything or making any big statement, so users never get lost in the operations. It’s a reliable companion, always ready to provide users with just what they’re looking for.
How the app concept can build trust across the ecosystem
— How does design impact the business side of things?
Akagawa: For the News Suite project, we revamped the icons, logo, color scheme, and every other visual element into a new, thorough brand guideline.
Ueki: In business terms, News Suite falls into the “media business” category. The app can be about more than just giving users a fun, sophisticated, content-first way of engaging with information. From my perspective, News Suite has the potential to embody a brand image that content publishers and advertisers—the sources of revenue—can believe in and be happy about. Without a solid design, that brand image doesn’t have a foundation to grow on.
Business and design: Providing solutions as a united force
— Design was obviously a central part of the project right from the get-go. Why was the development process such an integrated effort?
Ueki: Apps are a tight union of functionality and design—I get the feeling that design has a much bigger impact on providing solutions in the app realm than it does in other product areas. If users aren’t pressing a button in an app, for example, it’s almost always because of a design problem: maybe the button isn’t the right color; maybe the font size is too small; maybe it’s just doesn’t have the right degree of operability. The connections between design and the user experience are so close that you can’t afford to put the interface on the backburner.
Given the business background, then, it made perfect sense to work with designers on ways to address our overall performance figures.
Akagawa: Apps and services are one and the same these days. You can’t even separate them anymore. The development process has to mirror that fusion, too: designers naturally get involved in tackling business issues, and business divisions mine their data resources for insight into better designs. The News Suite project was a great example of those two sides coming together into a seamless, productive whole. That’s what defines Sony’s approach to creating services—and what developing great apps is all about.
Designers teaming up to tackle business challenges.
Business professionals using data to formulate design approaches.
Sony continues to create new value through dynamic partnerships,
transcending the conventional boundaries of design.