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Evaluating Interaction Design in Brazilian Tablet Journalism: Gestural Interfaces and Affordance Communicability

Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNISA,volume 9187)


The present work aims to provide a contribution to the definition of new parameters to guide interface design and content publishing that will ensure the quality of gestural interaction in newspaper apps for tablets. Our case study is O Globo A Mais, a digital edition with unique content specially produced for iPad, launched by Rio de Janeiro´s newspaper O Globo, one of the majors in Brazil. The research employed two techniques of qualitative emphasis: exploratory interviews and user observation focused on readers. We concluded that designers and journalists of O Globo A Mais should develop and refine their discourse to users through its gestural interfaces.


  • Tablet
  • Journalism
  • Design
  • Affordance
  • Semiotics
  • Communicability

1 Introduction

In the last decade, the computer has become a fundamental mechanism of our culture. One can see that current gestural interfaces enable new reading practices which are mediated by portable devices such as e-book readers, smartphones or tablets - quickly absorbed by the editorial market.

The present work aims to evaluate the reception of journalistic content through a case study of O Globo A Mais, a digital edition with unique content specially produced for iPad and launched by Rio de Janeiro´s newspaper O Globo, one of the largest distribution in Brazil, recently winning the Esso Journalism Award for Best Contribution to Brazilian Press, the most important contest in the country.

This research intended to provide parameters for the guidance of design, visual editing and content production, as well as the creation of interfaces, to ensure the quality of gestural interaction with news on tablets - respecting possibilities, limitations and cognitive requirements of the young generation readers, which are the targeted users of O Globo in their project.

2 Theoretical References

According to Palácios and Cunha [1], six fundamental properties characterize the spaces of journalistic information online nowadays: hypertextuality, interactivity, multimediality, personalization, continuous updating and memory.

Smartphones and tablets led to the emergence of a new element that is added to the above characteristics: tactility. In the point of view of the two referred authors, tactility is an important new characteristic of mobile communication devices and presentation of journalistic information that must be researched and tested.

This research intended to establish a dialogue with different theoretical views addressing the interaction between people and computers. The predominant and canonical theories of HCI are commonly knowledge based (Preece et al., 2002) [2]. Its roots came from cognitive psychology, cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence - disciplines that study cognition (the process by which one can acquire knowledge). They seek to understand the mental constraints of the users during their interaction with interfaces. On the other hand, there are also semiotic approaches to Human Computer Interaction - whose theoretical basis, Semiotics, is the discipline that studies signs, semiotic systems and communication. These were related to the work of semioticians like Charles Peirce, Jakobson and Umberto Eco.

In order to understand the applicability of systems, we decided to work with both the concept of usability (from the knowledge-based theories) as well as with the concept of communicability (by Semiotic Engineering).

Usability refers to the quality of system interactions with its users and includes several aspects such as ease of learning and use, user satisfaction and productivity, among others. On the other hand, communicability describes the property of a system to transmit to the user, in an appropriate manner, intentions and interaction principles that guided its design.

In the Semiotic Engineering (SE) point of view (De Souza et al., 1999) [3], the system interface is a message sent from the designer to the user. The designer is the author of this message transmitted to the user, and the Human-Computer Interaction reflects this meta process. Thus, interface design involves not only the intellectual conception of a system model, but also the communication of this model.

In semiotic approach, user interfaces can be viewed as one-shot, higher-order messages sent from designers to users. The content of such messages is a designer’s conception of who the users are, what their needs and expectations are, and, more important, how the designer has chosen to meet these requirements through an interactive artifact. The form of the messages is an interactive language. As Prates, De Souza and Barbosa [4] suggested:

In parallel with software usability, we can then assess software communicability. Communicability is the property of software that efficiently and effectively conveys to users its underlying design intent and interactive principles [4].

It’s important to add the work of Cavallo and Chartier [5] in our research: the historical foundation for understanding how tablet revolution can explain changes in reading practices. History of reading practices considers the “text world” as a world of objects, forms and rituals, with conventions and specific arrangements that lead the construction of meaning. Therefore, there is no text outside the support that provides the reading: authors do not write books, write texts that become written objects - manuscripts, engravings, printed or computerized -, handled differently by readers of flesh and blood.

Thus, Cavallo and Chartier stand against the representations of common sense in which the text exists in itself, apart from its materiality.

3 Tablets and Changes on the News’ Market

In a seemingly perfect marriage to journalistic information, the tablet restitutes to readers the direct interaction that the mouse has denied them: readers now use their hands. By employing the fingers and gestures to directly manipulate information - swiping through pages of magazines or newspapers, activating images, links, buttons and videos - users rediscovered the naturalness of gesture-based interaction. The reader, with comfort and convenience, possibly leaning against a sofa, is invited to spend more time interacting with news. Research indicates that users spend an average of ten minutes reading news on a website (using desktop), 30 min reading a printed newspaper, and up to 40 min using a tablet such the iPad.

The graphical integrity of the visual hierarchy of information – an important feature of print journalism – returned to the forefront in tablets editions, resuming a prominent role in information architecture and rediscovering the power of visual communication from printed magazines. “The ‘holy grail’ of tablets is a pleasant reading experience that brings the advantages of the internet in a beautiful and pleasant graphical interface. This connects the print world and the digital” – as explained by Adriana Barsotti [6], chief editor of O Globo A Mais.

However, there are consistent complaints regarding news apps for tablets in Brazil. According to Primo [7], the Brazilian journals fail to achieve the full potential of these devices: simply converting printed pages to tablet format causes a setback that has long ago been surpassed by regular webdesign practices.

According to Telio Navega, designer of O Globo A Mais, part of the problem could be credited to the misunderstanding of the changes taking place in the habits of younger readers. Navega [8] considers that: “young readers are on the Internet, they do not buy or sign printed papers any more. This is the great difficulty of today’s newspapers: journalists who work in newsrooms are older people who are far from new readers and can not understand what happens.”

Journalistic tablet apps are already a failure, says Lund [9], following the end of the commercial experience of The Daily, discontinued after $ 30 million in annual losses. The magazines on tablet format are completely invisible to information flows that govern the Internet. When a publication is organized this way, stories can not be indexed by search engines.

Skeptic about the efforts of the news organizations, Stevens [10] observed that the current journalistic applications for tablets are mimicking the extremely heavy CD-Roms, which makes them less useful and less practical than the web itself. The web, with its open source technologies like HTML5 and CSS, is much more efficient and capable of reproducing the typical sophisticated graphic layouts of tablets. This misconception, according to the author, will result in the definitive sentence of death of tablet journalism.

4 Tablet Usability and Perceived Affordances

When talking about tablet journalism interfaces, it’s important to have a detailed approach at the notion of affordances. According to Nielsen and Budiu [11], affordance means “what you can do with something”. On a touch screen, any single area may afford touching, tapping, sliding your finger, moving your finger in a zigzag pattern, or any other gesture.

Nielsen and Budiu explain that users also have to know that they can perform a specific action. Users can remember the gesture from past experiences, or they can infer the availability of the action from some visual indication on the screen. When people can see what they can do we are talking about “perceived affordances”.

Norman [12] explains that the word affordance was coined to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal). The term “affordance” comes from the perceptual psychologist J. Gibson who developed an “ecological” alternative to cognitive approaches (apud Gaver, 1991).

Gibson (apud Gaver, 1991) [13] focuses almost exclusively on affordances which may be seen, but affordances per se are independent of perception. Separating affordances from the information available about them allows the distinction among correct rejections and perceived, hidden and false affordances:

Common examples of affordances refer to perceptible affordances, in which there is perceptual information available for an existing affordance. If there is no information available for an existing affordance, it is hidden and must be inferred from other evidence. If information suggests a nonexistent affordance, a false affordance exists upon which people may mistakenly try to act. Finally, people will usually not think of a given action when there is no affordance for it nor any perceptual information suggesting it [13].

We ought not to confuse affordances with perceived affordances. Affordances reflect the possible relationships among actors and objects: they are properties of the world. Understanding correctly the concept of affordance and perceived affordances is essential to design apps with usability.

As Norman [12] stated:

Affordances specify the range of possible activities, but affordances are of little use if they are not visible to the users. Hence, the art of the designer is to ensure that the desired, relevant actions are readily perceivable.

As affordances need to be perceived by users, we can conclude that there is a communicability issue [3, 4, 17]. Designers should clearly communicate to users the existence of affordances in the environment.

Perceived affordances are defended by Nielsen and Budiu [11] as a way to ensure good usability of iPad applications: to design better apps, it’s important to add dimensionality and better define individual interactive areas to increase discoverability through perceived affordances. Also, it’s better to loosen up the “etched-glass aesthetic” and create designs that go beyond the flatland of iPad’s first-generation apps (this would emphasize affordances). Further recommendations are to include apps with Back buttons; broader use of Search; homepages; and direct access to articles by touching headlines on the front page; and support standard navigation.

5 Research Methods

The research employed in this study included two techniques of qualitative emphasis: (i) exploratory interviews with the editor and designers of O Globo A Mais, and (ii) user observation method based on cooperative evaluation method, focused on readers.

We called the user observation method “scenario and tasks based interviews” (Agner, Tavares and Ferreira, 2010) [14] and it was an informal kind of usability test.

A sample of undergraduate students of Communication participated of the proposed technique. We observed individually all their actions using O Globo A Mais and interviewed each one of them within their testing sessions, in order to evaluate the quality of gestural interfaces. The sample of participants was not probabilistic but guided to our research objectives. After application of a preliminary questionnaire, a group of six students was firstly selected. The number is due to the proximity of the guerrilla number indicated by Nielsen for the application of usability testing (apud Barnum et al., 2012) [15].

Each test participant completed a pre-test questionnaire to identify the details of his profile and experience with information technology. Then each selected student received a sheet of paper containing a scenario and eight written tasks to be performed to find published information in O Globo A Mais. During the user sessions - in which each participant sought to accomplish the proposed tasks – it was used think-aloud protocol while observing the interaction with an iPad.

6 Summary of Exploratory Interviews

As stated in previous section, one of our research qualitative techniques interviewed professionals involved with the production of journalistic content and news design: Adriana Barsotti, a journalist with master’s degree in Communications and editor of O Globo A Mais; Telio Navega, blogger and news designer of O Globo A Mais; and Raquel Cordeiro, designer of O Globo A Mais, among others.

Editor Barsotti [6] pointed out that journalists, to date, never had to worry about interface usability problems, something new to the press professionals. Realizing that readers faced some difficulty navigating in the digital prototype, the team requested the inclusion of various metalinguistic signs as a navigational aid for its content. The editor showed preference of redundancy instead of risking more problems in navigation and content finding by users.

The news designer Telio Navega [8] commented that he enjoys so much the experience of working in such an innovative project as O Globo A Mais, which is a legitimate example of the “future of journalism”. Moreover, he observed that young people have stopped to consume news through print journalism, giving their preference to online media. Navega [8] adds that the journalist of the newsroom is usually an older guy who has difficulty in keeping up and accepting the changes generated by the advent of online communication and social media. However, the company goal is to attract new audience and this would be done by launching the digital edition for the iPad. The goal has been achieved, since according to Navega, with the launch of iPad edition, O Globo newspaper nearly doubled its digital subscriber base.

According to Barsotti, the great advantage of tablet newspaper editions is catching the aesthetic print media model. Joining the two worlds (print and online), tablets deliver an enjoyable reading experience and a compelling and beautiful layout. In addition, journalists prefer tablets than websites as there would be in tablets more “glamour” and a satisfaction effect similar to that provided by print.

According to Navega [8], the “text journalist” loves the iPad because there is plenty of room for scrolling, so texts don’t need to be cut off. And it may also be enriched with multimedia: video, photos and sounds.

Technically, the team of designers doesn’t insert multimedia in Adobe software. Static pages are generated in JPG, then they are enriched using DigitalPages software, as informed by Cordeiro [16].

7 Some Test Results

We gathered data from empirical observations after reviewing and analysing 54 audio and video recordings. The usability issues found reflected problem categories similar to the ones identified by Nielsen and Norman [12] (Table 1).

Table 1. Usability problems associated to categories.

As informed by Cordeiro [16], extra usability testing was held at O Globo and its results helped guide some changes when the team adopted a new Adobe InDesign template in late 2013. As an example of these changes, the cover had a problem in the upper headlines that were not perceived by the public, which was detected by these tests and fixed. Later on, O Globo A Mais edition was converted to support other formats: Android tablets, iOS and Android smartphones, including a Kindle Fire edition and e-readers. The team also produced a version for Web, through a private channel inside O Globo. Now a version for Windows Phone is being tested, said Cordeiro [16].

Other changes included were: (i) insertion of Index menu on the cover of the publication that is enabled from a tap on the logo; (ii) insertion of an Index page; (iii) icons are now associated with verbal labeling; (iv) sensitive areas became more clearly defined; (v) Return button has been fixed; (vi) a Social Media button has been inserted (however with a limited functionality). The Search function was again overlooked in the app reformulation, though identified as an important tool in usability tests.

As a result from our academic research, the magazine O Globo A Mais is experiencing a new round of usability tests, in order to validate changes undertaken and manage general conclusions for Brazilian journalism apps. We cannot deliver results of this second cycle of academic usability tests as they are still ongoing.

8 Partial Conclusions

Based on compiled and analyzed partial data, we prepared Table 2 with design requirements and provisory suggestions for tablet journalism editions in Brazil.

Table 2. Categories and design requirements for Brazilian tablet journalism.

Remembering that there are predictions that point out that print newspapers would be extinct by 2030 in most of the world. In this context, studies in HCI have an important role when looking to make journalistic products be more effectively suited to the ergonomic needs and cognitive model of young readers.

Our studies and empirical observations led us to conclude that the set of seven categories of usability problems discovered by Norman and Nielsen [12] during their tests with tablets was also made present in the interaction of Brazilian readers with the digital edition O Globo A Mais. The categories recorded problems included: (i) affordances (ii) feedback, (iii) consistency, (iv) reversibility, (v) detectability, (vi) scalability on different screens, and (vii) reliability in operations.

The observed problems were related to gestural interaction, the operating system iOS and the page design and content structure of O Globo A Mais. We also found communicability problems in the affordances as, on many occasions, these were not perceived by the users. Affordances need to be perceived by users. This may be considered an issue of communicability [3, 4, 17]. As they stated, the designer is the author of a message transmitted to the user and the Human Computer Interaction reflects a meta-communication process. Designers should clearly communicate to users the existence of affordances in the interface environment, as user interfaces can be viewed as higher-order messages sent from designers to users. So, we can say that designers and journalists of O Globo A Mais should develop and refine their discourse to users. Perceived affordances are also defended by Nielsen and Budiu [11] as a way to ensure usability of iPad applications. This means adopting a design that goes beyond the flat based model that reflects the paradigm of print magazines, and adopting standard navigation features such as keyword search and homepages. Some recent changes in O Globo A Mais has already begun to advance in this direction, after new usability tests.

One of the biggest problems of journalistic applications seems to be the paradigm which their interfaces are based on: while representing an hybrid metaphorical model between the print and online media, some applications are intentionally seeking to get away from web.

Thus, interfaces of journalistic apps are strongly based on the layout model of print magazines (which would provide more prestige and glamour than websites). The fact is reinforced by the technology available: the software used for production, Adobe InDesign, comes from the print publishing industry and reinforces these characteristics.

We have also concluded that, in Brazil, journalists and newsmakers have created content for tablet edition without due care with sedimented requirements and standards of Human-Computer Interaction. As we could observe in our case study, according to Cordeiro [16], there was no specific responsibility role for interaction design in the team of O Globo A Mais.

User centered and interaction design methods were not considered during the early development of the product O Globo A Mais. According to the publisher Adriana Barsotti [6], interaction design is a new theme for press professionals and is not part of the regular concerns of a team of journalists.

These problems may cause navigation difficulties or setbacks to the readers of Y generation, which are an important part of the target who the newspaper wants to retain in order to increase its digital subscribers and ensure the survival of its business model in a publishing market that goes through major changes in Brazil and around the world.


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This research was made with the collaboration of undergraduate students of Social Communication (Department of Journalism/Advertising/PR) at Faculdades Integradas Helio Alonso (Facha) and post-graduate students of Interface Ergodesign, Usability and Information Architecture at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). This research is supported by FAPERJ - Fundação Carlos Chagas Filho de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (APQ1/2014).

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Agner, L., Renzi, A.B., Viegas, N., Buares, P., Zanfagnini, V. (2015). Evaluating Interaction Design in Brazilian Tablet Journalism: Gestural Interfaces and Affordance Communicability. In: Marcus, A. (eds) Design, User Experience, and Usability: Users and Interactions. DUXU 2015. Lecture Notes in Computer Science(), vol 9187. Springer, Cham.

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