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Moving responsive design beyond screen size

“Newsrooms are going to start thinking about responsive in terms of tailoring experiences based on a reader’s context in the physical world.”

Imagine opening NPR’s app on your phone to read a story before heading to work. You glance at the clock and realize you’re running late, so you grab your keys and rush out the door. As you start walking, the app starts playing the audio story of the same piece you were reading — no tapping required.

katie-zhuNext year is going to bring Google Now to news: the right information through the right medium at the right time.

In 2014, newsrooms are going to reframe our understanding of “responsive design.” We’re going to see content move beyond simply responding to screen size and instead respond to reader context, adapting to behavior.

We’ve done an excellent job of optimizing text for mobile over the past few years. Responsive is the de facto standard for news consumption on the go — but what’s truly responsive? Shouldn’t it respond to whether I’m walking or sitting, reading during the morning or at night — maybe if I’m stressed or not?

Newsrooms are going to start thinking about responsive in terms of tailoring experiences based on a reader’s context in the physical world  —  we can no longer assume that just because a reader is using their phone that they’re on the go. We’ve seen the rise of second screen apps in journalism this year. And you know as well as I that sometimes it’s just too much effort to reach for your laptop when your phone is sitting right next to you on the couch.

We now have the technical means to gather data about how people are using their various devices. In 2014, news organizations will be doing more to leverage this data to inform how they serve content — in fact, we’ve already seen hints of this in 2013, just in a less automated way. The New York Times launched New York Today, which targets readers on their morning commute, giving them local news about weather, politics, business in a bursty editorial package.

The bottom line is this: We’ve always listened to our readers. But readers don’t necessarily know what they want. Using a phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer, we can gather realtime data about how people are using their device at a given point in time — we know if they are walking or lying down, we know the weather and their location — and use all this knowledge to decide when to serve what content to readers and through what medium.

Here’s the tablet news app I’m hoping for in 2014: something that detects when I’m lying down in bed (it knows my device orientation and, using the ambient light sensor, can detect it’s dark) and serves me the sort of video content that I never have time to watch during the day.

Newsrooms have the ability to understand something more about their users when they use their product on a phone. And I have no doubt that the brilliant minds in journalism will use this gained knowledge to provide better experiences in 2014. I’ll be waiting.

Katie Zhu is an engineer at Medium.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20
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