Not content with iPad content

I’ve read articles lately about how readerships of ipad magazines has dropped off to a low level. This does not surprise me, because although there have been some impressive examples to “ooh and ahh” at, not much has made me want to come back the following months, weeks or days.

Many of the apps I have seen so far try very hard to create exciting visual experiences, and to adopt the graphic design language of print – or go the other way, putting too much multimedia in the way of reading. Here are some of the lessons I have learned while trying to design for great user experience on the iPad (and iphone for that matter), and from the apps I’ve tried. These are not numbered hierarchically, it’s just how they fell…

1 Get to the point. When users go to read something on the ipad they usually want to open it and begin to read. If there is a video or some other event which begins to unfold before they become frustrated. A lot of publishers seem to think that because the iPad is a great way to watch video that you should transform readers into passive viewers. I think that’s a big mistake.

Readers want to grab hold of stuff, read it and move on to the next read. Video is best used in context (when a story depends on a bit of video to stand up) – or as a type of content you choose to view. The most important thing is to help the reader get to what they want quickly and easily. The one situation where it is OK to break the flow is if you take an editorial decision to give the reader a surprise – but the surprise better be good and get onto the screen quickly (and be easy to put away) !

2 What’s with the pre-roll adverts? There is a huge difference between seeing as film in a theatre, and watching video content on the desktop or on ipad. When I pay to see a movie I have set aside a few hours to do that, and the ads are a useful buffer zone between the cinema doors opening and the main feature. And the ads tend to be good entertainment! Pre roll ads before video on iOS (or on the web) are a big turnoff.This is a very important distinction which has not yet been taken seriously by advertisers on iOS devices (or the web!) and one which it seems Apple is trying to address with iAd. We want every moment of use of the iphone or ipad to be gratifying. Unlike a newspaper, it is difficult to gloss over adverts, and fractional adverts take up far too much real estate.

3 Feeds are everything. If it’s not in the feed its not in the app. The structure of the data and how it gets delivered, and how much there is determine what the reader can see or read, and how long it takes to download

4 Size Matters. 300+mb per issue makes your app feel far more cumbersome than a magazine. It seem that while trying to solve the problem of creating periodical apps, many publishers have gone with solutions (from Woodwing and Adobe) which create bloated, limited products. Both provide you with an app shell into which you can pour your layouts, creating slideshows and other interactive elements along the way. By it’s nature this ensures very big dowloads, and at the same time shields the content creators from having to understand much about app design.

The benefits to publishers

  • It is cheaper to use these tools, which effectively create a PDF browser with added functionality
  • It lets the designers continue using familiar tools, acting as if they are just working on a different print format.

The drawbacks

  • Huge files
  • The creatives are not grappling enough with the problems of interface and user experience, or about touch or how the devices are used. Too much is put into making the ipad version LOOK like the print version.
  • The result is cumbersome products…
  • Often beautiful print details are left in, which can be mistaken for buttons or other UI elements, thus leading to frustration for the user.

5 The iPad is not just another print format. You are building software, not digital version of your print product. This is related to the points above but it implies the need to think about the staffing, marketing and maintenance of these products.

6 This is not a cheap fix. whichever way you look at it this new approach needs investment, and looking for a shortcut can end up costing huge amounts more than a publisher bargained for because the different approaches to app production are not compatible beyond the news gathering and content generation. Even editing styles will differ depending on the approach you use.

7 Automatic is no substitute for editing. You won’t have seen the new Guardian iPhone app yet, but there are some cool thngs we have done with attention data ( Most Read, Trending subjects). These automated parts of the app based on the reading behaviour of the readers seem to prove the opposite of what I’ve just said, …but wait a minute, are readers reading a random selection of articles? No: the data comes from reader behaviour on the website and therefore reflects an edited product. The combination of people with machines is what makes great content rich products.

8 New stuff for new platforms. There should be content crafted for apps. In the case of the new Guardian app there are larger pictures used in parts of the app. Without a human eye on these details the user experience could be pretty bad. One can envisage a role for content commissioned for these devices as well, crafted to suit the types of gesture and interface available.

Like Marshall McLuhan said, The Medium Is The Massage.

Just over a year ago I wrote about designing the Guardian iPhone app, if you want to read that it can be found here


5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Totally agree with all the points. Especially the investment part. Digital is easier to roll out but needs a bigger investment to get right.

  2. Jeremy:
    I’m a political illustrator for The New Yorker here across the pond. Now doing short indy pieces for the web. Would love you to see this:
    Always interested in feedback.

  3. Halka,

    Magazines are not selling news. They’re pretty objects that people love leafing through. If you take those pretty objects and shove them into a text-driven RSS news feed app, you’ve just destroyed what makes them appealing in the first place.

    That’s not an excuse for bloated, unintuitive magazine apps — but you need to understand the appeal of magazines before you prescribe newspaper solutions for them.

    • John-Henry,

      I agree with your differntiation between newspapers and magazines. I am not advocating text driven RSS feeds for news apps, nor am i arguing for the same solution for both news and magazines – but rather against the bloated app route and for a lot more experimentation and investment. We need to learn much more about he medium and how to think, commission and design for it!

      • DM Cook Cook,

        It’s important to keep the virtues of print in mind when designing for the iPad, but to “fit” the iPad’s interactivity to the content. In other words, no one is advocating a text-based RSS approach to magazine content, but having media delivered (to the device) in that form means it becomes much easier to share, link to, etc through the software. Really what magazine designers need to think about most is, “how is our content going to be browsed?” is its audience mostly intent on reading long, multipage articles, or are they more interested in sub-sections or “fact panels”? Will the content be improved by adding video, or having sound? (90% of the time, this is a “no”. I don’t care what your media advisor thinks.) And most importantly, how can we create a magazine layout that is RESPONSIVE to the user’s touch? (can we make images change or display differently? Can we display blueprints or cross-sections when the viewer’s actions dictate? Can we display fabric or color swatches, or perhaps isolate an object in the image?

        Touch allows a magazine to understand EXACTLY what their customers are interested in. It’s an incredible benefit… if designers work with it, not against it (by cramming their layout into some half-baked Adobe solution).

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