We Need to Talk About the Apple News UI


July 31, 2022

September 21, 2022

The conglomerate leaves users adrift in a sea of overwhelming headlines—here’s how they could fix it.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: There’s more readily consumable digital content available now than ever before. As the 24-hour news cycle becomes increasingly breathless in its pursuit of clicks and as publishers scramble to combat misinformation, readers are often left more than a little bewildered. So many publications to read from. So many articles worth bookmarking for later.

Enter Apple News. The one-stop shop that promised to keep iPhone users up-to-date, and prevent them from having to jump from website to website, housing all of their favorite media brands on a single screen. Theoretically.

But what started as an ambitious foray into news and content organization has resulted in a muddled offering of unorganized headlines, paywalled articles, and a slipshod user experience that’s difficult to navigate, removing the delight from discovery. Here are five big problems with Apple News—and how the multinational tech company might think about solving them.

1. Users are lost in a maze of content.

The problem: With so much content available, organizing all of those potential options into a digital front page is no small feat. It’s worth acknowledging: What Apple News is trying to do here is ambitious. Then again, it’s something the New York Times has literally been doing since 1851. Arriving on the Apple News homepage on any given day, readers are greeted with a melange of articles. Weather sits next to financial news, global politics next to sports, and a little further down is a smattering of celebrity gossip and hot-take opinion pieces. It’s a dizzying array from a wide variety of outlets and readers quickly run into the so-called Netflix conundrum: They mindlessly scroll before ultimately jumping, overwhelmed by choice and unwilling to make a decision.

The solution: Despite what Apple might have you think, there’s a precedent for how to organize news (see the above mention regarding the Times). Though Apple famously loves to break the mold and turn up its nose at user testing, it may have served them well in this instance to simply look at what other news sites already do: Offer a clear way to topically navigate sections. Browsing and discovery absolutely have a place in design, but users are never unhappy when they can quickly find exactly what they’re looking for.

2. Unclear paywalls add another layer of confusion.

The problem: Apple News offers a hybrid experience: Some of the content is free, and some of it is premium. It seems straightforward enough—especially since it’s safe to assume most users are familiar with the concept of “in-app purchases.” Once again, it’s not the idea that falls short. It’s the user experience that does.

The News app’s current UI makes it difficult to discern which content is free and which will live behind a paywall—until a user has already tapped on the story itself. Withholding that information until the last moment feels like a bait-and-switch.

The solution: There’s no reason to not signal a user earlier on what’s gated and what’s not using simple iconography. Remember: You don’t lose paying readers because you give them clear sign posts—you lose them because they become frustrated with an experience.

Image source: iDownload Blog

3. Search functionality leaves much to be wanted.

The problem: We’ve all been there. A notification pops up on the lock screen but for whatever reason—you’re in a meeting, watching a show, in conversation—you ignore the alert. Later, when revisiting the notification and attempting to find the article… you can’t. It’s almost as if it’s completely disappeared. Searching doesn’t yield many fruitful results either, especially if you can’t recall the name of the headline verbatim.

The solution: Working search functionality is essential. Users should be able to more easily find articles, especially the ones that were previously served to them via push notification.

4. Unfortunately, the browsing functionality isn’t much better.

The problem: Browsing—leisurely scrolling through content until you come across something interesting—should always be enjoyable. But ultimately, as mentioned at the start, Apple missed the mark on this, too. Though users sign up for a number of “channels” during their initial interaction with Apple News, there’s not an easy way to browse by topic. Looking for the latest sports headlines? Or the latest in entertainment? Instead, you’ll be left to select ESPN, People, or one of the other appropriate “channels” (read: brands) rather than a more easily decipherable category.

The solution: Hamburger menus aren’t new—but they work well for a reason. The iconography is readily identifiable and the interface allows people to quickly find the information they’re looking for. Just because a solution is obvious, doesn’t make it bad—especially when you’re presenting a recognizable interface that’s going to be used by millions worldwide.

Image source: iOS Gadget Hacks

5. Content selections feel random—and not a tailored experience.

The problem: The next time you open the app, ask yourself: How were these news selections curated? Who picked them for you? What algorithm decided on their placement? The question isn’t merely philosophical: The “top stories” presented help dictate a national conversation—especially when they appear on a platform as widely used as Apple News. The arrangement and placement of these stories is extremely important, and gets to the heart of the app’s intent: Informing the public.

The solution: Hire an editor. Algorithms do an excellent job at filling in gaps and suggesting additional content based on a user’s known behavior. But there’s a space where we’ve yet to replace the nuanced decision-making an editor can bring to news curation. Apple News employs editors, of course. It’s probably time to allow them to work more closely with the UI team in order to curate an experience that feels unique, personalized, and ultimately human.