Why National Public Radio’s Mobile Web Approach Works

Currently I’m on vacation by Lake Leelanau in northern Michigan. This area offers considerable beauty and fun, but generally spotty cell and broadband access.

That’s a steep challenge for me and my friend Susan Mernit, who invited me on this trip. We’re both online/mobile media junkies and newshounds. This trip has really hammered home how poorly most news sites handle the mobile Web — and brought one shining star to the fore: National Public Radio.

Go ahead: grab your cell phone. Turn off the wifi and 3G connections if you’ve got ‘em, and just use the regular old cell network. If you don’t have perfect reception where you are, so much the better.

Then, look up NPR.org on your phone …

The first thing that happens when you go to NPR.org is that the site detects you’re using a phone and automatically routes you to the mobile version of the site: m.npr.org. You don’t have to remember to enter the mobile URL; you just go to the version of the site that will be most useful to you and fastest to download.

Speed and usability win big brownie points with mobile Web users. No matter how much you publicize your mobile site URL, most people won’t remember it. Not forcing them to remember or enter a special URL saves them time. Use device detection to automatically route mobile users to your mobile site.

NPR’s mobile site is not only lean in terms of the graphics, text and layout (which means fast downloading, especially over a slow or spotty cell network connection), but it’s also useful and intuitive. I viewed it on both my iPhone, which has the pretty nice mobile Safari browser, and on Mernit’s Blackberry, which uses a much leaner, less graphical browser.

The first option is “listen to NPR hourly news,” which makes sense for someone who wants to catch up on the news in a spare moment via phone. Below that is an option to view the full (standard) NPR.org Web site if you prefer.

That makes so much more sense than forcing mobile users to first download the (probably slow, un-mobile-friendly) version of your home page, where they’d have to hunt for a mobile option. This is, by the way, what happens when you access some sites such as MercuryNews.com: The standard heavy site starts to load, and you have to click “mobile” from the top menu or remember to visit m.mercurynews.com to get the mobile site. Too many steps.

If you select the “local news” option on NPR’s mobile site and specify your local station, NPR remembers your choice and will serve you a localized version of its mobile site whenever you access it from that device in the future.

I recently moved to the Bay Area, so I selected San Francisco’s KQED as my local site. Now when I go to npr.org it routes me to m.kqed.npr.org. Also, now at the top of the screen I see options to listen to the hourly update for either national or local news.

The site of course lists top headlines, most popular stories, section heads and other standard news site fare, as well as clear options to donate to your public radio station.

My only quibbles with the current NPR mobile site are minor. First, it buries “story search” near the bottom of the mobile site. I think that should be up top, just before the top stories headline. Chances are that people will hear an NPR story on the radio or by podcast, and then will want to find that story online to send a link to friends or as a note to themselves. It’s a way to capitalize on those “driveway moments” NPR endlessly touts in fund drives.

Second, on pages for individual stories on the mobile site, NPR would benefit from putting the “send to a friend” option up top, just below the headline. And maybe also add a “send to myself” option in there somewhere so that people who want to note stories for future reference don’t have to keep typing their own e-mail address on clunky cell phone keyboards.

As I wrote last month, far more people own cell phones than will ever have access to Internet-enabled computers. Cell phones — whether fancy “smart phones” or simple models with stripped-down Web browsers — are valuable and vastly underutilized news platforms.

People want news where they are, and often their cell phone is all they’ve got. Also, they may sometimes only have a couple of bars of cell network connection. It’s up to news organizations to work with those constraints to help build loyalty with this huge market. NPR sets a great example on this front.

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