t.AOL.COM aka PROJECT BASEBALL

CARD & RESPONSIVE UX BEFORE IT WAS UBIQUITOUS


 

BACKGROUND

In the nascent days of smartphones and tablets, my fellow UX designer Jim Sabia and I, conceived of a way to simplify the mobilization of websites. We were inspired by the debut of Japan's Infobar OS and the brand new Microsoft Metro interface. Our challenge was figuring out how to make it work within a mobile browser.

 

. . . . .

We conceived, designed and deployed a card-centric, browser-based framework for building websites — a full year before responsive websites and card-based design became the norm.

. . . . .

 

What we designed and deployed was a system that let us simultaneously build for narrow, medium and wide widths. We designed cards for audio playback, video playback, photo galleries, news, weather, mail, and other custom content. The benefits of a card-based system were so obvious we wondered why we and the rest of the world didn't think of it sooner.

Twitter and Google would roll out their own card experiences in late 2012.

  • my role: Product Design, UX-UI
  • platforms: Phone and Tablet for iOS and Android. Degradation for Blackberry & Feature Phone
  • tools-processes: Analytics Review, Market Research, Collaborative White boarding.
 

Inspiration came from the way information was displayed on baseball cards, thus the name Project Baseball.

 
 

 

ANATOMY of a CARD

Because we designed Project Baseball’s components to work as independent cards, it meant the ability to support signed in/out states, location known and unknown states and general customization were only limited to any specific brand's desires. The individual brands could mix and match cards as they saw fit based on their specific needs.

The Aol.com properties were monetized platforms so we had to ensure that the design still worked with the ads units we were selling. Ad size considerations were addressed for both landscape and portrait orientations and all the respective widths/devices.

 

 

RAPID DESIGN & DEPLOYMENT

With the help of our developers, who were equally gung-ho about the prospects for this type of design, we were up and running within the span of a single summer. Though we first deployed the solution on the Aol.com portal, it's obvious how easily the design could be white labeled and customized.

The design and development of any new features or cards would benefit all the brands in Aol's portfolio.

. . . . .

 

Our card designs for Project Baseball would evolve. The skeuomorphic design gave way to  flatter, simpler, cleaner and more focused cards. It was obvious how easily the design could be white labeled and customized for specific brands.

 
 

 

AOL.com has 7.2 million daily unique visitors and 21.1 million monthly unique visitors. The AOL.com homepage attracts more than 806 million page views each month. On average. AOL.com's readers visit the site, twenty times a month.

 

 

USER REACTION & RESPONSE

Overall, participants liked seeing new energy in the t.Aol.com (Project Baseball) site design. The majority of people felt that the old design did not create enough differentiation between sections of content on the site.

In the Project Baseball version, branded headings made the site more stimulating. Several people mentioned feeling “happy” to be on the page because of the color. It didn’t matter whether people saw the mobile site first and then proceeded through the tablet and older desktop designs or if they reviewed the sites in reverse. (At this time Aol still maintained a dedicated desktop-centric website.)

Participants preferred the new Project Baseball mobile site to the old site. For half of the participants, the center column of the old site was confusing. These people were unsure what the content was, and they needed more help so they could contextualize the content. Compared to the old site, the Project baseball execution was more modern, easily scannable and emphasized data important to users. It also introduced music, video and photos in a more tactile experience — one that heavily leveraged mobile gestures.

In reviewing the Project Baseball designs, participants wanted to be able to customize the content they saw on the site and to choose in what order said content appears. The ability to turn off elements that were not relevant to them personally, was necessary. For some it was the stock ticker, for others it was the games module. All these customizations requests validated our thinking. We knew what the next steps could be and overall Project Baseball had been berry, berry good to me.

 

 

VERIZON COMES KNOCKING

After launch, I was asked to explore how we'd adapt the new experience for a potential partner. That partner turned out to be Verizon Wireless. Verizon didn't want to maintain their customer portal and saw a co-branded experience as a possible solution.

The request came with a 99.99% uptime requirement, accommodations for legacy users versus new users, support for two different search engines, mobile browsers, and legacy device support. This meant we had to support experience degradation.

Degradation in web design is when unsupported features are systematically removed from the users' experience based on the type of device. Rather than get a notification that a feature wasn't supported, users wouldn't see it at all. As the SME for mobile web, and the primary designer for Aol.com's mobile web, I'd already designed these experiences for Blackberry, Palm, and Feature Phone devices.

I like to think that this helped us in future talks and contributed, in some small way, to the eventual acquisition of Aol by Verizon.

 
 

Degradation in web design is when unsupported features are systematically removed from the users' experience based on the type of device.