The thoughts and process behind Metro10

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Metro 10 was born out of a desire to experiment with native mobile news reading experiences that solved a different problem to our already fully responsive website. We had an algorithm that allowed customisation and decided to use this as our data source. The concept of restricting the volume of content would help us differentiate from our infinite web experience. We also wanted our users to engage with each article fully before moving on and not just get into a state of skimming which we had seen with infinite lists online.

Our goal was to minimise the time to launch so we decided a hybrid approach would help this. Utilise the native elements for caching and navigation but a web view for the article body. As our CMS stores all of the HTML and other markup in a single blob stripping this out was too much work for the first iteration of an idea that was unproven. Our initial ideas were based on simple mobile interaction patterns. Swipe to dismiss, interaction based personalisation and full bleed images as our tablet edition had experimented successfully with this. We decided on an Android first approach as we had Java skills in house and we also wanted to iterate quickly once it had launched. The turnaround in the Play store would allow us to do this.

I hadn’t written any code in four years and getting back in the saddle was a rewarding experience. Leaning a new language and platform at the same time took a little time but the tools and ecosystem are pretty mature. Initially I got out my little black Moleskin notebook and started sketching. Putting something down on paper helped me to start to visualise flow and basic function. I am no UX designer but I find sketching a really valuable first step in any design process.

Once we had a basic idea we jumped into a rapid prototyping phase. This involved a lot of copying and pasting from Stack Overflow and some working from home to get some focus to get the bare bones of an app together. It was buggy as hell but being able to show people on a phone and see there reaction was priceless. I then involved Matt our UX designer and he started to iterate on the design. We were lucky that the concept was simple and allowed very quick iterations. The design quickly morphed from a list that looked very web based to a full bleed image that felt more mobile first.

It was at this stage I got a few more of the team involved. When rapid prototyping it was good to be solo and really iterate quickly but once we were locked on an idea we needed stability and to start on a refactoring process to move towards a proper architecture. I believe in emergent design where you don’t over architect things up front but as you learn more of the systems and domain build what is most appropriate. This can save a lot of time as you only build what is necessary and refactor once you are sure of its value.

The next phase of development to our first alpha was frustrating at times but also very rewarding. We kept the requirements process very fluid as things would change on a daily basis. This was a challenge but having written user stories which were quickly out of date and fought with automation of testing we decided keeping things simple was the best approach. Guerrilla usability testing has been key to shaping the UX. As the initial idea was pretty out there putting it in real peoples hands in the real world was priceless. We quickly learnt that people liked the limited number of stories, enjoyed the full screen design but having to dismiss every story Snapchat style wasn’t something that they felt comfortable with. The paradox of choice was blinding them. With 10 possible stories to read and only one visible at a time and only one chance to read it they couldn’t decide whether it was interesting enough.

We decided to strip the user experience back to its most basic and only give people 10 stories at at time that they can scroll through left and right. With this approach people were quickly able to grasp the concept and understand the navigation. Calling it Metro10 ensured that we kept to our goal of just the 10 most popular stories right now. Throughout this process there have been a lot of tension between what constitutes our MVP. Due to a fixed timeframe we had to make some compromises around fluidity of design. The biggest was to leave all interactions via gestures rather than fluid animations. The level of complexity rose exponentially with these.

We were able to get validation of our ideas without them. Learning if the concept works is the most important and all of the underlying data, service and business layer need to work no matter what the front end looks like. Overall it has been a great experience in taking a concept from paper to reality in less than two months. There have been lots of zigs and zags along the way but that is what makes this job interesting.


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Later iteration

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