Designing visual interfaces for listening: 45 considerations


This article was originally published at NPR Design Blog. Republished with permission.

NPR’s mission as a news organization is to create a more informed public. Yet we know that — depending on the events of the day, or the user’s particular perspective — consuming the news might be a fraught experience.

Our digital media design team continues to evaluate how we can create news products with empathy. We previously looked at our platforms where a user might read the news, then we brainstormed 50 stress cases to consider when designing for those experiences. Next, we’re looking at use cases and stress cases through the experience of listening.

How are stress cases different from use cases?

Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher introduced this concept in the book Design for Real Life, which I consider required reading. Stress cases are the scenarios in which human users encounter digital products during their own individual times of crisis, anxiety or urgency.

As designers and developers of digital products, we tend to make assumptions about our users: who they are, the tools they value and how they use our products. We plan for typical use cases, and we allow for unforeseen uses. But when we consider a human’s individual circumstances and perspectives, we can better plan for stress cases.

What do you see when you listen?

Listening is naturally a prevalent behavior for users consuming NPR’s news, stories and podcasts. Users can tune in live or listen on-demand, whether via broadcast radio, our website, apps or social media. Yet, listening users have different needs than reading users. Where is it appropriate, or even possible, to employ visuals to help listeners?

In other words, what do you see when you listen?

  • If you listen to a podcast, do you pocket your phone as soon as you tap the play button?
  • If you listen while driving, what is shown on the car’s display?
  • If you listen online, do you open another browser tab to skim stories?
  • If you listen to broadcast radio at home, are you even in the same room as the source?
  • If you listen to an audio embed on social, have you kept scrolling to other posts?

It seems important to emphasize the obvious: much of listening occurs without a user interface. Designers of audio interfaces shouldn’t assume that listeners have encountered many — or any — visual cues. There may be a visual entry point, but we shouldn’t assume the user stayed visually engaged through the duration of listening. So our team decided to identify use cases and stress cases around listening that would impact the way we approach our visual design work.

What might go wrong with listening?

Our team gathered to brainstorm ideas around the various ways listeners hear NPR stories and shows. We wanted to see how we might use visual design to clarify elements of the listening experience.

So we opened the exercise by asking, “What might go wrong with listening?” We wrote up ideas around themes like listening via live radio, timeliness of on-demand audio, continuous listening, and issues particular to local content.

After the exercise, we shared all of our ideas. We quickly saw a mix of both use cases and stress cases. Many use cases came up over and over again — emphasizing expected patterns in the user experience. The stress cases helped frame how we might account for times of uncertainty.

Sharing use cases and stress cases

Since more and more media organizations are dipping their toes into audio, we want to share this mix of cases. On-demand audio and continuous listening, especially, affect anyone making audio stories or podcasts. The cases concerning member stations even apply to any news organization considering their delivery of regional vs. national content. So, as products are created for listeners, please consider…

When listeners turn on the radio, or press play on a website or app, they may:

1. Miss the date or time stamp on the story or show.
2. Only want today’s news, but are unsure if that’s what they are hearing.
3. Have missed yesterday’s news, but it has been removed from curation today.
4. Mistake a previously-recorded story for a live story.
5. Hear a story covering an ongoing event, but don’t know there have been updates.
6. Be worried about their personal safety in a dangerous location, and need the most recent news.
7. Need live information in order to know how to evacuate their location.
8. Feel anxious and not know how to check for the most recent news.
9. Hear similar but different stories from both national and local sources, and feel confused.
10. Want to hear only local coverage of an ongoing news event nearby.
11. Feel unsure of a story’s timeliness because of natural language within the story, such as “here,” “right now,” “today” and “yesterday.”
12. Hear commentary without realizing it’s opinion, and feel the story is biased.
13. Hear a story that is part of a series, but don’t know how to hear the rest of the series.
14. Hear a story from “the archives,” without realizing it isn’t recent.
15. Listen to a morning show in the afternoon, and the day’s events have changed.
16. Question the veracity of a guest’s statement, so they want more information.
17. Hear a story that was reported differently by another news source.

When listeners hear stories or shows continuously (one after another), they may:

18. Expect that the selections would be personalized, but the curation does not reflect that.
19. Expect a story of the same topic or theme, but the next story is totally different.
20. Read other stories while listening, so they don’t see metadata for the audio stories.
21. Want to curate their own playlist, but the display doesn’t show what’s coming up.
22. Want continuous listening for a set period of time, for example, only 20 minutes.
23. Use continuous listening as an alternative experience to screen readers.
24. Have their hands occupied and can’t stop the audio, and it has become inappropriate.
25. Have their device in a purse or pocket, and can’t turn off audio fast enough.
26. Be overwhelmed with story choices, and just want a curated flow.
27. Want more context around a story, but the next segment is a different topic.
28. Be offered a podcast, but just want shorter stories instead.
29. Want continuous listening with short stories, and one-and-done listening with podcasts.
30. Listen with kids in the car, and the next story isn’t appropriate.
31. Have started listening in the middle of a story, and don’t know how to hear the beginning.
32. Only be interested in one particular story, but didn’t expect another story to start playing.

When NPR localizes listeners to their member station, listeners may:

33. Feel surprised that NPR tracks their location.
34. Live abroad, and have to choose their member station instead of being auto-localized.
35. Want to hear news from their hometown, instead of where they are currently located.
36. Have expected to hear a member station that is music instead of news.
37. Not know their member station has multiple streams, and feel unsure of what to choose.
38. Expect that the station will automatically change as the listener’s location changes.
39. Not hear special live coverage on their member station that is being aired on other member stations.
40. Feel anxious about danger in another city, and isn’t sure how to listen to live radio there.
41. Want live news from multiple cities.
42. Want to hear live breaking news coverage from another city’s member station.
43. Recommend a certain member station to a friend, but may not be sure what it’s called.
44. Read a friend’s social media post about something that’s on “the radio” right now, but our member stations aren’t the same.
45. Not understand the relationship that connects NPR and their member station.

Our team will continue to revisit the unexpected cases that surfaced when we explored how listeners might understand the timeliness of news, experience continuous listening, and connect with member stations. If product designers can have realistic expectations for how listeners engage (or don’t) with our visual interfaces, we can improve the listening experience for everyone across platforms.

Image: Jonathan Gross.