Sara Dickenson Quinn


Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think beyond traditional job descriptions for ways to contribute their ideas, passions and abilities.


How The Verge used visuals to tell the delicate story of a face transplant

The ordeal of a woman who received a total face transplant is hard for an audience to fathom without seeing it. But Verge science editor Katie Drummond had a challenge beyond potentially making some readers squeamish: how to tell the story with the care and respect Carmen Tarleton deserved.

45-year-old Carmen Tarleton worked as a registered nurse in Thetford, Vt., before she was attacked by her husband in 2007. She has two daughters, Hannah and Liza.

Tarleton’s ex-husband attacked her with lye and a baseball bat in 2007, and media coverage afterward upset her because it prefaced stories with disclaimers like “‘warning, this footage is graphic and may disturb some viewers,’” Drummond wrote in an e-mail to Poynter.

That horrified Tarleton, Drummond wrote. “The idea that her own face was being treated as if she was some kind of monster, or that her disfigurement made her somehow less human.”

Drummond and the editors at The Verge wanted to respect Tarleton’s feelings.

“When you’re telling the intimate story of someone who’s been through such inconceivable challenges,” said Drummond. “It becomes even more important to accurately and sensitively capture who they are and what they’ve been through.”

The Verge decided to tell the story through Drummond’s text, sensitively rendered illustrations and a mesmerizing video interview with Tarleton created by Sam Thonis and Stephen Greenwood after her surgery.

Tarleton had agreed to the television interviews back in 2007, said Drummond, but she had lost her vision in the attack, “so had absolutely no idea what her face looked like.”

Her interview with The Verge is juxtaposed with photos of Tarleton as a beautiful young woman and with images of Cheryl Denelli-Righter, a stroke victim who became the donor of her new face.

Seeing and hearing Tarleton tell her own story gives a clear view of her courageousness that would be otherwise tough to comprehend.

After the surgery, she invited Denelli-Righter’s daughter Marinda Righter to touch her mother’s face, now her own. Her mother “is still here, because I have her face,” said Tarleton in the video. “I can’t help but think… I could just go up to Vermont and give my mom’s face a kiss,” Righter told Drummond.

Tarleton’s speech is still difficult to understand because of the surgery and will be on the long recovery ahead, but the former registered nurse is frank and articulate. She’s currently learning to play piano and dating her instructor.

The story’s lead image is a drawing of two faces coming together as one.

Katie Scott created the illustrations for the story, including this conceptual image.

“We wanted to work with someone who had a scientific touch to their drawings but wasn’t necessarily an anatomical illustrator,” said Verge art director James Chae, who commissioned illustrator Katie Scott.

Drawings throughout the presentation help to tie together other concepts visually, like the tricky surgical procedure, potential risks and illnesses, the long-term need for medication and the possible loss of personal identity.

The Verge crew worked closely together to tell the complicated story that had to come together in one package. “I feel we are given a lot of license to be the author and really tell a story,” Chae said in a telephone interview. “The word is thrown around a lot, but here at The Verge, it is a really intimate collaboration. Everyone has input.”

“We all felt as if we were telling a story that was … the unbelievable ability of a face transplant to profoundly change someone’s life,” said Drummond.

It was important that readers be exposed to both the before and the after in images and video, she said, “because we really wanted to convey what this woman endured and what this surgery accomplished.”

A reader expressed shock when he first saw the image in the story of Tarleton before surgery, said Drummond. Then he finished the story and watched the video. “When (he) went back to that image,” she said, “it was much less jarring — [he] just saw a woman. I really appreciated hearing that, and I think it gets at what we were trying to convey … Carmen is ‘just a woman,’ albeit an incredible one who overcame incredible odds—and we hoped readers would see that.” Read more


How ongoing teamwork fueled The Guardian’s Firestorm interactive

How did The Guardian find a focus for its new multimedia piece, Firestorm?

The project began with inspiration: a striking photograph of a woman and her grandchildren taking shelter from a raging fire in the water under a jetty. The photograph came to represent what Australian officials refer to as “The Angry Summer,” the hottest season on record in that nation’s history. That season affected thousands of people in Tasmania, and has become a talking point about climate change.

Feature writer Jon Henley and video producer Laurence Topham went to Tasmania to find the story behind that photo and others. When they returned, they worked with the Guardian’s multimedia and interactive teams to fuse words, video footage, pictures and audio into a rich interactive feature.

The photo that helped inspire The Guardian’s project. Firestorm tells the story of how this family survived a wildfire that devastated their community. The project melds video, text and graphics in six chapters.

“I think you have to capture people’s hearts,” Francesca Panetta, special projects editor of interactive storytelling projects, said in a phone interview. “As with all kinds of storytelling, you can’t lose sight of that need to connect and touch people, whether it’s writing or radio or a complicated interactive.”

Firestorm is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the stellar video images and the subtle way that looping video is used behind the written story. The integration between words and video is handled with such finesse that the one doesn’t distract from the other.

“We’re very happy with the subtlety,” Panetta said.

The chapter navigation uses clear images and concise icons and labels, ensuring it’s always clear where you are in the story.

A project like Firestorm or The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning interactive, Snow Fall, demands considerable resources. Twenty-three people are credited for Firestorm, which was three months in the making — actually a speedy turnaround for a project of this scale.

Many newsrooms don’t have that level of resources, of course. But they can still learn from The Guardian’s process and the project’s experiments with layered storytelling — and figure out ways to do something similar on a smaller scale.

Here are some takeaways from the project:

Figure out how different departments can work together.

Panetta stressed that collaboration was key within the team, which she directed with Interactive Editor Jonathan Richards. “The number of people that were involved and the range of skills were crucial,” she said. “It was incredibly enjoyable, but more importantly, it really shows within the final outcome.”

At times, a designer, videographer, writer, developers and others all sat together in the editing suite as choices were made about how text might run over images.

Having a tightly integrated project team is essential, Richards said in an email interview: “It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of physical proximity, not least because that mini-cycle of ‘try it out, get feedback, iterate, improve’ becomes possible. It’s that mini-cycle, repeated many times over, that is at the core of a lot of successful pieces.”

Henley “was literally sitting next to me, writing into the b-roll,” said Panetta. “Writers don’t usually have things moving behind their words. … It seemed like the best, collaborative situation for us to be able to see these elements come together.” Henley’s full text is included in an e-book version of the project, available through The Guardian.

Start planning early.

The team was formed before the reporting even began. Designer Daan Louter created templates for the interface before Henley and Topham left for Tasmania. “We had to rework the pages when they came back to design it all around this beautiful footage,” Panetta said.

Be prepared for several iterations.

First, the video was cut into very straightforward films, Panetta said. “I worked with them to see how the writing could be meshed with the footage.” Then, she said, “we worked with the interactive team to re-cut the videos after we saw what we had.”

Let the story evolve alongside technical editing.

“Building an interactive that’s very video-heavy has enormous technical things to consider,” Panetta said.

Staffers tackled buffering problems and tested all of the different browsers people might use to view the story. They considered what type of images would work with text floating on top, and how many words would work well on the page. They also did several days of lab testing to see how users would move through the story before posting the project last Sunday.

“With interactives, it’s about where you are taking people’s attention within all of these spheres. The elements have got to fuse together,” Panetta said.

“The feedback loop between such testing and editorial teams is really important,” said Richards. “Editorial teams are traditionally unfamiliar with — and wary of — such testing. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Testing, Richards said, “can be super low-tech—you don’t need a lab. Diligently spending a morning testing [an interactive] with six or seven colleagues can often yield more insight than a week’s worth of design / development / discussion. We made some really high-level tweaks in the days prior to launch as a result of doing that.”

Set goals and figure out how time commitments.

“As with any genre, the story has to be there,” Panetta said. In other words, the content and possible shelf life must warrant the effort required for a large interactive presentation.

In addition to the interactive team led by Richards in the U.K., The Guardian has a group of designers, interactive developers and journalists in New York that works with editorial teams to produce dynamic projects. The company also has a team that helps newsroom staff create e-books.

“We see ourselves as a media organization,” Panetta said, adding that “it’s a craft in itself to combine media to make the story rich and immersive. … We continue to try to see what it is that people like and what they engage with.”

Richards said he thinks “we’re really only at the beginning of what it can feel like to experience ‘media’ in a beautifully integrated and immersive way. … When you consider how important the visual and audio senses are to your experience of the world, it seems crazy not to investigate cleverer, subtler and more compelling ways to make them part of web-based storytelling.” Read more

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Covering Guns: Live coverage of the conference

Poynter’s coverage of the Read more


How one illustrator approaches investigative reporting

Artist Marina Luz faced a journalistic challenge.

She had to illustrate the story of a young woman named “Jennifer,” who had been sexually abused in a state-run facility. But she could not use an image of Jennifer. What’s more, she couldn’t show what Jennifer or any of the other people in the story actually looked like.

Could we understand Jennifer — a troubled, young disabled woman — without actually seeing her?

Luz solved the problem with expressive drawings that were then paired with narration, music and a statement from Jennifer’s mother, read by an actor to further disguise their identities. Jennifer is not the young woman’s real name.

There are no bright colors in Luz’s renderings — only sketchy black lines and muted shades of brown, gray and blue.

Drawings of people in the story are “a mix of fragile, thin, line drawings,” Luz said in an e-mail interview. And the background has “a subtle bit of distress or distortion to give texture and a feeling of discord.”

Her drawings walk us through a difficult time in Jennifer’s life.

Luz worked closely with producer/writer/director Carrie Ching on the project called “In Jennifer’s Room,” which was published by California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting last fall. (My colleague Al Tompkins wrote about the project and Luz’s illustrations here.)

The lines of Marina Luz’s work are tenuous and sketchy. Her backgrounds show variations of texture in muted tones of brown, gray and blue.

“Coming from an artistic and not a journalistic background … I hadn’t realized how unusual the approach was to journalism,” Luz said.

At the beginning of the project, Luz received a script from the producer, comprised of narration and interviews. She also received notes on various scenes Ching wanted and where they would appear in relation to the script.

Luz said she sent back a storyboard with “ridiculously rudimentary thumbnail sketches. There’s no finesse to the storyboard at all, just the minimum necessary to convey the basic composition of each frame.”

For accuracy, Luz consulted photos of the hospital facility, especially the Corcoran Unit where the young woman was housed.

Writer Ryan Gabrielson had spent a year-and-a-half reporting on the “Broken Shield” project that “In Jennifer’s Room” was part of. He provided a diagram of the young woman’s hospital room. Luz also received information about some of Jennifer’s specific bruises and injuries, like the shapes of bites and handprints, and where they were found on her body.

Beyond that, there were no specific details other than those included in the script. This was a deliberate editing choice, according to Luz, in order to conceal the identity of all involved.

“I (knew) exactly as much as the viewers, in most cases, which is just the information in the script,” wrote Luz. “Anything more would be a terrible burden,” referring to the way she approaches an emotional, unfolding story like this.

Jennifer and her mother appear in the drawings, but only as impressions. “Deliberately, I’m given no identifying details about the people involved whatsoever,” Luz said. When she drew images depicting the possible attackers, “I tried to draw them so that they look like real people but not specific people.”

There is a delicate balance in illustrating a story like this, wrote Luz. “You want to make a truly heartbreaking narrative interesting and accessible, but also keep it tasteful. Aesthetically, you’re trying to be evocative without being heavy-handed, and realistic without being specific.”

After more feedback on the storyboard sketches, Luz chose a few of the drawings to do more finished versions and refine the overall style. “Once those are greenlit,” Luz said, “it’s on.”

The drawing style has “a visual parallel to, say, the scratchy sound on an old record player,” wrote Luz of her approach. “And it’s all connected (to the overall video), the drawings are only part of creating that mood.”

Three pieces of music and sound effects back up the voice track. “I thought the music used in the piece gave it such a poignant atmosphere,” wrote Luz. “I don’t think the drawings would have worked nearly as well without that. “

Luz has had other assignments for reportage, or news illustration. Most often, she’s  captured the flavor of an event or story with a much lighter tone, like a horse race, a beer tasting or a white elephant sale. She is a writer, as well as an artist who works out of her studio in Oakland, Calif.

Luz also created the illustrations for “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden” — the widely viewed interview with the Navy SEAL who left the military after he killed the terrorist.

Again, the key for Luz was to create an emotional, expressive style of image.

“It called for a much different style than line drawings, and the illustrations ended up as rough-hewn blocks of light and shadow,” Luz said. “More concrete, heavy and literally darker.”

For the story of Jennifer, Luz used art as a specific solution “born of the challenge of keeping the subjects anonymous,” she said. “But I hope that these stories have opened the door for a wider and much less restricted usage of illustration.”

Here’s the full video:

Here’s a related News University Webinar on illustrated journalism. Read more


New York Times’ ‘Seinfeld-esque’ sports page shows the power of nothing

Kapow! Blam! Surprise! Sometimes, that’s what nothing can do.

The New York Times sports staff reminded us of that again with their cover “story” about this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame inductees — or lack, thereof.


This sports front about the lack of inductees to the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame was designed by Wayne Kamidoi.

“Given the news, the package was Seinfeld-esque,” said Sports Art Director Wayne Kamidoi, “a cover about nothing.”

Kamidoi likes to push the boundaries when it comes to conceptual design, especially when there is a point to be made.

Conceptual design often involves a marriage of words and images that tells a story in the arrangement itself.

The staff was not surprised that nominees Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens didn’t make it, but it “felt like history had spoken,” said Sports Editor Joe Sexton in a note to staff sent Thursday morning. “How to convey that to our readers? I think we did it—a striking, profound emptiness.”

As they planned the design throughout the evening, most of the discussion was contained to the sports department. “Maybe out of fear?” wrote Kamidoi in an e-mail interview. “There was some apprehension, including from myself,” he said. “I was not reassured when the sports editor said on his way home he told the news desk about what we were planning … and walked away very fast.”

Concepts as unusual as this one work best when all of the details have been considered. It might be a visual wink and nod to a situation that captures the reaction to a story that people will be talking about the next day.

In this case, the staff felt the amount of white space represented was appropriate “to present a story that COULD have been,” if there had been an actual list of inductees, said Kamidoi. “Ultimately, some of the marquee names of The Steroids Era were rendered in agate-size type, a mere footnote in baseball history, at the bottom of the package.”

They worked to ensure that the few words that did appear in the story worked clearly. “I’m fortunate to have some sharper minds nearby like designer/illustrator Sam Manchester, graphics editor Joe Ward and baseball editor Jay Schreiber,” said Kamidoi, “to refine the concept.”

Over the years, Kamidoi has been inspired by a body of conceptual design work by “the informal fraternity of newspaper sports designers” he said. “Most of the best and fun concepts are done under deadline duress, and without having staff pizza. Concepts by Joe Zeff, before he became an app design warrior, and Christoph Niemann are some of my favorites.”

The power of a simple idea—in this case a startling void of information as an avid sports reader opens up the paper—can be remarkably engaging.

“Our night sports editor said we received phone calls from two of our print sites to see if we had made a mistake in typesetting the page,” said Kamidoi. Most savvy sports readers likely caught the gist, right away. Read more


Why photo of the First Couple was Obama’s most retweeted ever

Images and graphics are often the things shared most by people after an event of last night’s magnitude.

Photos capture moments frozen in time.

Graphics can distill the complex.

Interactive graphics can allow people to peruse and discover at their own pace.

Illustration is striking—partly because it is used so infrequently—and because something drawn by hand can convey a very human aspect of mood and emotion.

There were some masterful examples of visual storytelling captured, created, experienced and shared in real-time around the world last night.

Here are a few things that caught our attention.

This image of President Obama and the first lady was tweeted out by his staff minutes after he was re-elected for a second term with the phrase: “Four more years.” Twitter reports it is his most re-tweeted tweet, ever.

“The Obama machine understood both the closeness of the race and the power of his image,” said Kenny Irby. The president and his staff took total control of his image throughout the day. Obama had not been seen or documented since early in the morning.

“I am struck by the fact that this image was clearly documented much earlier in the day and that the caption does not represent it as a reflection of a specific time during the counting of the ballots or some such event,” said Irby.

There is a controlled branding to this choice. “It was not about what the event was, but rather who was in the image,” said Irby. “Millions only cared to see the unity of the first couple and the victory associated with that.”

Photojournalism is changing the way photos are shared and exchanged. “It is no-longer only the pursuit of deeply passionate, highly skilled practitioners with an abiding zeal to shine light in dark places and offer a face to the faceless,” said Irby.

Captured four years apart, two key moments in the Obama family life show the president a little grayer and his daughters more mature. These “Today” show photos allow juxtaposition in ways that other story forms can’t touch.
Among the many great photos published during the campaign and election by White House photographer Pete Souza, this moment between running mates and their spouses is a visual surprise that few people would otherwise see.

Many interactive graphics had a game-like feel to them, coaxing users back again and again to play through the scenarios even before the election. Some incorporated elements of social media, so a stream of conversation happened alongside the graphic.

Countless people watched vote totals unfold graphically on multiple screens—perhaps with a laptop open to The New York Times’ 512 possible paths to the White House and NPR’s interactive that was created in fully responsive design so that it could be easily updated and used on virtually any device, platform or browser.

The U.S. interactive team of the Guardian used humor and illustration to create the hysterical “Action-packed journey to US election day in novel form.” Proof that visual storytelling can be both data-driven and highly entertaining, the interactive has been shared more than 10,000 times. Read more


New Poynter Eyetrack research reveals how people read news on tablets

It’s all about touch.

People were either intimately involved with the iPad screen while reading during our recent eyetracking study — keeping nearly constant contact while touching, tapping, pinching and swiping to adjust their view — or they carefully arranged a full screen of text before physically detaching as they sat back to read.

This intimate or detached touching behavior was one of the most intriguing findings in Poynter’s new research on tablet storytelling. It’s one of many that can help us define how people want their news.

“Intimate” readers were highly focused. They tended to read one or two lines of text, then make subtle, frequent swipes to move a few lines of text into their field of vision like a teleprompter. This was like a pacing tool that helped them to keep their place in the text. Intimate readers made up a majority of the study, at 61 percent.

Using eyetracking gear, observation and exit interviews, Poynter looked closely as 36 people interacted with real news stories on an iPad. We closely analyzed their reading patterns after they looked at one of three prototypes created for the project.

So that we might look for clear differences, we recruited people in two, distinct age sets: 18-28 year-olds — a group we have been calling “digital natives” because they are among the first adults who don’t have strong recollection of life before digital –  and 45-55 year-olds, or “printnets” referring to one foot in the print world, one foot in the “’Net” world.

Each of the three prototypes created for the study featured the same 20 stories but had different designs for the front page or entryway. One had a “traditional” look and feel, similar to an online newspaper. It had a dominant photograph, a lead headline and headlines for each of the 20 stories in the publication. Content categories were news, sports, business and life. The second prototype was a carousel design with images and headlines for each of the 20 stories. The third was a flipboard design with four images that highlighted one story from each category.

The traditional prototype was the one most similar to what people usually looked at on their tablets. Fifty percent of the readers preferred the carousel design, they said in an exit interview, while 35 percent preferred the traditional prototype, 15 percent liked the flipboard.

An average of 18 items were viewed before people made the first selection to read. This means that some headlines or images on the fronts might have been looked at multiple times before the study participant made a choice to read something by tapping it.

While many text stories were read to completion, an overall average of a minute and a half (98.3 seconds) was spent on the first story a person selected to read. Of the people who did not finish reading a story, they read for an average of 78.3 seconds before leaving the story entirely. We’ve been calling this the “bailer’s point” and it might be a good benchmark for establishing a “gold coin” like a simple pullout quote or visual element that keeps the reader engaged about halfway through a long story. We will write about this in more detail next week.

Readers in the study expressed a strong preference for holding a tablet in horizontal or landscape orientation. Seventy percent said in the exit interview that they preferred that to a vertical or portrait orientation though they will switch between portrait and landscape depending on the content. Their overall choice has a lot to do with the screen dimension for watching videos, they said. These factors are important as news organizations determine the resources they need to devote to creating and design content in multiple modes.

Readers have an overwhelming instinct to swipe horizontally through a full screen photo gallery, regardless of portrait of landscape orientation, as we reported previously.

As with earlier eyetracking studies, people tended to enter a screen through a dominant element, generally a photograph. Faces in photographs and videos attracted a lot of attention.

There was strong reliance on using the browser to navigate between stories, even though navigation tools were also designed into the publication. Sixty-five percent of study participants used the browser back button, rather than the home button or publication nav design. This speaks to the importance of the familiarity of tools — people will default to what they know if it’s available.

Tablet design requires the same sorts of finesse with color, type, image, grid and navigation necessary for print or Web design. But touch … well, that’s the new factor in keeping a reader engaged.

Full results of the study are being discussed at a two-day conference at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on Thursday and Friday. If you are in the area, you can attend for free, or watch as Friday’s sessions are streamed live. The first live-streamed session begins at 9 a.m. CST Friday with Mario Garcia, a principal in this research project, as he talks about his work around the world with tablet publications and his new ebook, “iPad Design Lab.” The project overview will begin at 11:30 a.m. CST. The major results start at 2 p.m. CST. Read more

The major prototypes in Poynter's EyeTrack: Tablet project include three styles of entry pages. Development is underway. The project is funded largely by the Knight Foundation.

Poynter ‘EyeTrack: Tablet’ research shows horizontal swiping instinct for photo galleries

Poynter’s “EyeTrack: Tablet” project, the latest in our long tradition of research to understand how readers view news, can now announce some early results: iPad users have an overwhelming instinct to swipe horizontally through a full screen photo gallery, regardless of portrait or landscape orientation.

Our Poynter research team thought this was the case. But we couldn’t say with any certainty until we’d observed about a hundred people in an initial, small slice of the study at multiple sites around the U.S.

This first bit of data helps us make decisions about the much more complex prototype designs that we’ll test in the months ahead.

The swiping gesture is an important component to integrate. Much news content on tablets currently call for users to swipe horizontally between stories and vertically through the actual text of a story. But most photo galleries move horizontally through a single story or topic. This finding supports that approach to photo galleries.

In our test, each subject was handed an iPad in a scientifically randomized orientation — portrait or landscape — to look through three photo galleries. They were asked not to turn the tablet after it was handed to them. Participants who were given an iPad in landscape orientation swiped horizontally 93% of the time. In portrait, they swiped horizontally 82% of the time. This is statistically significant (p<0.001) evidence for a horizontal inclination and indicates that the swipe direction isn’t just a random behavior.

So that we can release findings as we go, we’re initially testing small elements of behavior like this, one at a time.

Breaking the research into smaller questions “allows more faculty, researchers and students to get involved,” said Jeremy Gilbert, assistant professor of media product design at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Medill students are conducting part of this early testing. About one-third of participants are in Evanston, Ill., while about one-third of the other subjects are being observed at the University of Florida; and one-third in St. Petersburg, Fla., at Poynter. Soon, participants will be observed in Denmark as well.

The process is painstaking, but it’s better to get specific information sooner, rather than later. We’re basing designs on research, in addition to close observation of what is currently being tried within the media world.

“This lower-cost usability testing is quicker to conduct but can still draw meaningful, methodologically sound conclusions,” said Gilbert. “And it can have impact much more quickly than previous projects.”

The major prototypes in Poynter’s EyeTrack: Tablet project include three styles of entry pages. Development is underway. The project is funded largely by the Knight Foundation.

You can see a few work-in-progress designs above. In a few weeks, the team will begin to use eyetracking gear to see how people use three different tablet entryways and a variety of subsequent story and advertising forms.

The possible variables are endless, but Poynter is working to focus on key issues that can be tested most effectively. In addition to eyetracking equipment, we’re using observational analysis, survey and exit interviews.

Gilbert is part of the core research team with David Stanton of Smart Media Creative; Mario Garcia, founder of Garcia Media and key designer of tablet and media projects; and myself. We also have a long list of stellar advisers from within Poynter and around the world.

And here’s a way you can help: We’re currently looking for 20-30 great stories with strong “shelf life” to be included in the prototype testing. The stories should exemplify storytelling in a variety of forms for tablet — written, video, photo and both static and interactive graphics. If you’d like to suggest a story or project now, please let me know. We need stories about sports, business, global news, science, popular culture, and more.

You can read more about the project and how to get involved on the Poynter “EyeTrack: Tablet” Facebook page and in The Mario Blog.

To hear more detailed discussion about the instinctive swipe direction on tablets, listen to the ViewSource podcast on Monday. Read more


Poynter eye-tracking research to determine best strategy for news on tablets

What should we know about the way storytelling and news is presented on tablets?

In 1990, Poynter tested how people read news in print. In 2000 and 2003, we tested how people read news online. Then, we dove into the differences between the two with research in 2007.

Next up? The device that incorporates the magical elements of touch and location.

Of course, readers touch and transport newspapers and laptops, but the interaction on tablets really is quite different.

Users pinch, swipe, and scroll, horizontally and vertically. They multitask and they physically move from place to place. Tablets devices know where people are, and they give people access to real time information on the go, based on where they are.

This adds great dimensions to the user experience. And we’re ready to look for tools and practices that help to define standards for what works well and what is to come.

To that end, we’re embarking on research that hopefully will include you.

We’d like you to tell us what you would like to know. If possible, we’ll incorporate your ideas into our study using eyetracking gear, gesture tracking, media diaries, observation, survey, prototypes and more.

While this research can’t answer every question related to the way people read on tablets, we hope to provide good insight into the opportunities that the devices bring for news, storytelling and advertising.

All of the design, code and content from our prototypes will be open source. The data we gather will be, too. If you are interested in replicating the experiments or parsing through the data, we’ll give you the goods over the next six to nine months as they become available.

We’re also seeking possible funders for the project — that’s another way to get involved. With a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and other funds from CCI Europe, we’ll begin with this basic framework of questions:

Tools and tasks: How intuitive can tablet navigation be and how long does it take to successfully complete a task?

Satisfaction: How happy are users with an overall experience and how does that impact their perception of the credibility of the source?

Comprehension and retention: Which forms help people to understand and remember what they have seen or read?

Business and revenue: What strategies might work for news organizations? For advertisers? For consumers? How might editors set up a newsroom to create content for a tablet product?

Questions about the project? Let me know at squinn(at) You may also join the conversation about this project at

The Poynter EyeTrack research team: Dr. Mario Garcia, David Stanton and Jeremy Gilbert
The Poynter EyeTrack research team: Dr. Mario Garcia, David Stanton and Jeremy Gilbert

In addition to myself, our key research team includes:

Dr. Mario Garcia, CEO and founder of Garcia Media, who pioneered Poynter eyetracking research with Dr. Pegie Stark Adam.

Jeremy Gilbert , assistant professor of media product design at Medill Northwestern University.

David Stanton, managing developer for Smart Media Creative and research consultant.

Rick Edmonds, media analyst for Poynter.

Regina McCombs, Poynter faculty for multimedia and mobile.

And our advisory group draws an even longer list of talent, including:

Roger Black, CEO of A Narrative Design Studio.

Rusty Coats, President of Coats2Coats, Consultants for a Media Future.

Andrew DeVigal, New York Times multimedia editor and

Jeff Sonderman, digital media fellow at Poynter.

Jennifer George-Palilonis, George & Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Multimedia, Ball State University

Michael Holmes, The Center for Media Design.

Damon Kiesow, The Boston Globe.

Miranda Mulligan, The Boston Globe.

Tor Bøe-Lillegraven , CCI Europe.

Nora Paul, Institute for New Media Studies, University of Minnesota.

Robin Sloan, former director of media partnerships at Twitter.

Will Sullivan, Lee Enterprises and the blog,

Matt Thompson, National Public Radio.

Here are a few introductory thoughts from our research team.

Dr. Mario Garcia:

“EyeTrack has always been one of the most major contributions from the Poynter Institute to the industry. A generation of editors, journalists and designers have benefited from the Institute’s EyeTrack findings through the years, which has, in turn, contributed to easier to read newspapers and online editions.

Now, EyeTrack turns its attention to the tablet, and, again, this will come at a time when the industry needs the information the most. I am happy to be involved again, and I am convinced that this new EyeTrack will advance the cause of effective visual storytelling on new platforms to the next level.”

Jeremy Gilbert:

“In only a few years touch-based, mobile computing has gone from a novelty to industry changing technology. Now is a critical time for media companies to evaluate what works for users and to explore what a touch-based news experience should look like.

Previous EyeTrack research has helped designers and researchers understand how people interact with old media. Now is the time for the Poynter Institute, university researchers and media professionals to join together to explore these issues.”

David Stanton:

“Instead of trying to create unified theory, we want to build a research framework testable across devices and content.

Our choices are driven by our research objectives, but you may have different objectives. To let you extend our research, all design, code, content and data will be open source. We want everyone to contribute to a better understanding of news consumption.”

Rick Edmonds:

“Analysts are suggesting that the adoption of iPads and competing tablets will be far faster than the introduction of any previous popular device.  But there is a great deal still to be learned about how users interact with their tablets.  As a business matter we particularly need to begin moving past hypothesis to observation and other primary research on how users view advertising, what kinds are most engaging and effective. EyeTrack can contribute significantly to that body of knowledge.”

In awarding the grant, Knight Foundation noted that the research comes at a critical time for the industry. “With half of all data traffic expected to come from mobile devices by 2015, this research could provide new insights for news organizations about revenue generation strategies that work for mobile and tablet platforms,” said Knight Foundation Program Associate Amy Starlight Lawrence.


4 reasons the Sunday front page now looks a lot like the Monday front page

Where are all of the truly great Sunday, front page designs in the U.S. these days?

As I do my daily run through the Newseum’s collection of front pages, Sunday looks a lot like Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

“Papers seem to be taking fewer chances,” said Suzette Moyer, creative director of the St. Petersburg Times’ Bay Magazine. “Instead of blowing out that one big story that they know is good, papers are trying to appease every reader by cramming it all on the front page.”

You have a little more time to read on a Sunday, right? And more time to analyze what you’ve read. It should be special.

Granted, there might be a beautifully executed front page on any given Sunday in any given town with the ability to stop a reader in her tracks. Some papers excel at this (see examples below). But, by and large, I think the volume has been turned down to a rather monotonous murmur around the U.S.

“I don’t think there is enough surprise to most Sunday papers,” said Moyer.

And no big surprise as to why.

Supposition 1: There are tough cuts in every part of the newsroom. It’s unfortunate and inevitable. But perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point in quality by eliminating too many positions for visual journalists?

Design and graphics staffs are about half the size they were 10 years ago, says Jeff Goertzen, graphics director of the Denver Post (and soon to be director of graphics at USA Today), who conducted an informal survey of about 50 newsrooms earlier this year.

“The average design staff that was about 22-24 people 10 years ago in a big newsroom is now around 12 or 13 people,” said Goertzen. Where there were once nine artists, those staffs now have three or four. Eight of the major papers surveyed have no graphic artists at all. Copy desks and photo staffs have taken tremendous hits, too.

Supposition 2: Those designers and graphic artists who remain in newsrooms are doing a lot more things — and often those things don’t have much visual impact.

A front page designer might fill a news editor slot throughout the week, lay out multiple inside sections and produce for the website. Most websites are strictly formatted, so the work has relatively little design impact outside of a standard layout.

I know photo directors who pick up assignments themselves, losing precious time for essential picture editing. I know disappointed copy desk chiefs who have little time to think about the headlines they so love to write.

“That’s the trend,” said Goertzen, “those people that are left are morphing into more hybrid positions.

“Even a photo gallery is time-consuming to create,” said David Kordalski, visual editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “And online photos don’t get a lot of eyeballs. Galleries still don’t have the reach that print does for now, at least not at the Plain Dealer.”

Supposition 3: The average news hole in the Sunday paper is smaller than it was five years ago. Historically, investigative projects are the ones that have been afforded more time and space for design, photos and presentation. Perhaps the big, expansive investigative stories are fewer and farther between.

But, regardless of the size of the story, you want to be able to draw readers to the most important stories of the day—every day—with an element of surprise. A “regular” day might be no different than a “twelve-part series” day to a potential reader who might buy a newspaper from a box.

Good design also means knowing what the volume level should be on the front page over time and designing accordingly. “In some cases, (newspapers) have turned it up to an “11,” said Kordalski, “without the story really warranting the play.”

To design well is to edit well.

Supposition 4: The creation of centralized design centers and simplified templates are business decisions — decisions that might show considerable savings on overall production and something that certainly works for low impact pages. But the time saved should be used for strong visual storytelling on key pages.

Much more than filling holes on a page, design requires conversation and upfront time with the story so that it can be presented as it should be — a true marriage of words and images. It requires time and inspiration for it to gel.

Front page design isn’t usually suited to an assembly-line situation.

“I think designers have lost a little bit,” said Moyer. “We need to get back up on the ladder.”

Here are a few pages that made me stop.

The Virginian Pilot goes big on concept with a story about the national debt, yet they still manage to have five stories starting on the front. The Cleveland Plain Dealer draws the eye with an equation on a chalkboard.
The Virginian-Pilot goes big on concept with a story about the national debt, yet they still manage to have five stories starting on the front. The Cleveland Plain Dealer draws the eye with an equation on a chalkboard.
These pages work especially well for me, for different reasons. The Virginian Pilot, which does a great job every day, uses a compelling visual dimension to convey information. All design needs to communicate. The San Francisco Chronicle chose to use this image of Steve Jobs as a young man, in an environment that says a lot about who he was.
These pages work especially well for me, for different reasons. The Virginian-Pilot, which does a great job every day, uses a compelling visual dimension to convey information. All design needs to communicate. The San Francisco Chronicle chose to use this image of Steve Jobs as a young man, in an environment that says a lot about who he was.
These two front pages have dynamic centerpiece packages, even without dynamic photographs. The Huntsville Times's graphic presentation certainly turns up the volume on a story about tuition increases; The Salt Lake Tribune blends a nice yet static photo of a local theater with data about the arts.
These two front pages have dynamic centerpiece packages, even without dynamic photographs. The Huntsville Times’s graphic presentation certainly turns up the volume on a story about tuition increases; The Salt Lake Tribune blends a nice yet static photo of a local theater with data about the arts.
The National Post's front pages move easily from layered analysis to poster-sized photos.
The National Post’s front pages move easily from layered analysis to poster-sized photos.

I’d love to hear your ideas and see front pages that were so great you couldn’t help but stop to read them — on a Sunday or any day. Read more


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