Aug 30, 2013 · 4 minutes

Two weeks ago, NPR unveiled the redesign of its homepage, which is now a spare, white-space-heavy reading environment that places more emphasis on each story and less emphasis on cramming lots of headlines into a small space.

I like the new layout because it facilitates a quiet, calm reading and browing experience. It looks so good, in fact, that it reminds me of a tablet app. It’s not, of course – it’s a website built in HTML5 with responsive design, so it adjusts to whatever screen you’re viewing it on. But the resemblance is not accidental, and I expect we’re going to see a lot more of this on other news sites in the near future. App-like news experiences are the way of the future.

NPR did have tablets in mind when building the site. Patrick Cooper, senior product manager for NPR Digital, says the rise of mobile devices has changed the way the organization thinks about design. “We didn’t set out to make it look like a tablet or a tablet app,” Cooper says in an interview, “but we’ve definitely seen the mobile design trends that have emerged in the last few years and how they’ve refocused the industry and the users in the value of clarity in information.”

NPR’s reader numbers on mobile are increasing every month, while its desktop numbers are leveling off, Cooper says. “We expect that within the next couple of years mobile will surpass desktop in terms of number of users. So we obviously need to go where the users are going.”

Users are going to mobile for a reason. Smartphones are terrific information-delivery devices because they’re connected to the Internet and always with us, meaning we can squeeze in reading time while we’re waiting at the bus stop or standing in line at Chipotle.

But tablets are even better. The screen size on a tablet is great for reading, and the gesture-driven interface replicates the tactile experience to which we have become accustomed over centuries of handling physical books. But with tablets, we also get the responsive surface, so we can tap words to find their definitions, touch a link to bring up a new page of information, or swipe to the next story. The screen size is large enough to faciliate a layout that is comparable to – and, now that high-resolution displays are the norm, often better than – magazines. That makes them excellent “lean back” devices, optimized for deeper reading experiences. Tablets are little portals into which you can disappear.

For all those reasons, publications should be thinking of themselves as tablet-first products. Increasingly, that’s where reading is being done, even though only 34 percent of Americans own tablets. That number will increase in the coming years as tablets get cheaper and more powerful, and as people increasingly buy them instead of laptops. Indeed, over the last year, the total amount of time that people spend in tablet news apps has increased by 14 percent, according to recent figures from Localytics. Pew Research has shown that 56 percent of the country’s tablet owners use their phones for news, and the research firm has found that people prefer mobile devices overs PCs when it comes to reading news. The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute says that, thanks to mobile devices, increasing numbers of people are canceling their print subscriptions and switching to digital subscriptions.

The smartest publications are already heading in the tablet-first direction. Quartz, for instance, looks and behaves like a tablet app on any device, boasting infinite scroll, a left-side navigation bar that scrolls independent of the main news well, and ad units that sit between stories rather than in sidebars.

The New York Times is “tabletifying” its website, starting with longform features, including its recent oral history of “Saturday Night Live,” which features generous helpings of white space, uncluttered sidebars, one long scroll, and a fixed header that appears only when you scroll down the story.

The New Republic trades on a similar design thesis, similarly choosing to highlight just a few stories on its homepage.

Bustle, with its top-of-screen carousel and its large-image grid structure, also looks like a tablet-first product. (Disclosure: Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg is a regular editorial contributor to PandoDaily.)

These sites are the frontrunners in what will ultimately come to be recognized as a big shift in media design thinking. That shift is predicated on the realization that the first era of news websites were built for mouses, headline-scanning, and the idea that the homepage is paramount. These days, we aren’t directing a small cursor on a large screen to a slimlined headline; we’re touching large links to open up new avenues of discovery. Now, stories come to us through other means, including the likes of Twitter, Facebok, and Reddit, but also through links within other story pages, quick swipes, and a willingness to keep on scrolling – because it’s so easy when you’re doing it with your thumb.

When NPR did its redesign, it expected a drop in visitors as people adjusted to the new look, but it anticipated a rise in pages per visit and average visit duration. The second part of their prediction has held true. NPR Digital’s Cooper says both pages per visit and visit duration have increased significantly. But unique visitors and page views have also gone up slightly.

The new NPR site is outperforming the old one on all fronts, even though the organization has abandoned the idea of stuffing as many headlines onto a page as sanity would allow. The tablet-friendly approach is proving not only better for the reading experience, but also better for the business.

Tablets are killer reading devices and news organizations are adjusting accordingly. Soon enough, that won’t be news to anyone.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]