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Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

November 8th, 2011 · 5 Comments

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).

Economist

The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on.

New Yorker 1

Then there’s newspaper apps like The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Globe and Mail, all good in their own ways and all with completely different modes of navigation. Some have articles scrolling left to right, others up and down, some have sections arranges horizontally, others vertically, and so on. I wouldn’t have any problem with these differences if they were justified (I don’t expect aggregators like Flipboard or Zite to work in the same way) but let’s face it – these newspapers all have a pretty similar structure, meaning that it’s annoying to have to learn new conventions every single time.

Guardian 1

NYT

Globe and Mail 2

This Cambrian explosion of interfaces that touchscreens have ushered in is exhilarating in the truest sense; I’m pleased to see new ideas flourish, but I’m frankly tired at having to keep track of so many different UI conventions. They frequently get in the way of the content and the experience. I’m not so bothered about whether we swipe left to right or up and down to read articles as long as there’s some kind of consistency.

It’s this consistency that, I believe, has made so many people enamoured of iOS. We might complain about how the home screen and its grid of apps is getting rather long in the tooth, but at least you know how it works. In contrast, when I pick up an Android phone I don’t immediately know how to navigate the home screen with all of its widgets, and even if I did learn, that knowledge wouldn’t necessarily translate to other Android phones. I wouldn’t be surprised that the end result is users just not taking advantage of all the features out there.

That’s not to say that the Android experience is necessarily any worse (although it may be) – it’s just that its inconsistency between implementations places a real cognitive burden on users. I just bet this bugs the hell out of a lot of Android users since people ‘ought’ to find the ‘best’ OS or UX and use that, but guess what: we’re only human.

The same reason lies behind why people like ‘personal newspapers’ like Flipboard, Zite, and arguably Instapaper (along with their earlier incarnations, RSS readers); these apps make the reading experience consistent across every blog and newspaper and magazine, and just make things easier to read, even if they don’t actually have best-of-class UX. They also download stuff faster and provide a one-stop shop. I could frankly care less about the social stuff, it’s just the convenience that’s important.

(Two notes: I wonder why Flipboard and Zite don’t have a bookmarklet that mimics Instapaper’s functionality. Seems like an obvious thing to do. It also goes without saying that Flipboard and Zite have completely different navigation systems, although I suppose that’s the point.)

Flipboard

It’s slightly puzzling, then, that Flipboard has introduced custom skins and UX for selected websites like Wired. I understand that this is a quid pro quo for those websites getting visibility/not being too pissed off at being aggregated, but it breaks the consistency of the experience for me and I don’t appreciate it, even if it does look better. Maybe they don’t think it matters that much.

I expect that newspaper/magazine apps will eventually converge around one or two general reading conventions just as blogs and news websites mostly have. For instance, I’m heartened to see more and more sites losing the infernal pagination and going to single-page articles.

But maybe things won’t settle down. Maybe the characteristics of our devices – tablets and smartphones today, voice tomorrow, head-up displays next week – will outpace our ability to reach consensus. In that case, expect ‘old’ interface conventions to linger on well past their welcome simply due to our familiarity with them; who knows, perhaps the virtual reality user experience of 2030 won’t be a glitteringly efficient yet totally alien cyberspace, but a mahogany desk bearing a calendar bound in rich Corinthian leather

Tags: adrian · apple · book · newspaper · tech · writing

5 responses so far ↓

  • Eoin Purcell // Nov 9, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I’m pretty sure that The Economist isn’t in Newsstand because Apple is demanding a 30% toll from publishers for subscriptions sold via the service and demanding too that publishers use their in-app purchase system meaning THEY not the publisher controls subscriber data.

    Eoin

  • Adrian Hon // Nov 9, 2011 at 10:51 am

    So any app that’s in Newsstand *must* offer subscriptions via Apple as well, even if they don’t advertise or link to them within the app? That’s a bit annoying, although understandable given Apple’s position.

  • Eoin Purcell // Nov 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Not just must offers subs via apple, but I’m fairly certain can ONLY offer subs via apple within the iOS ecosphere thus losing 30% AND the subscriber data.

    There are also restrictions on linking back to the magazine webstore/subscription pages on the web.

    This issue has badly impacted on ebook retailers who operate under agency terms with many publishers and would be forced to sell books at zero profit and sometimes a loss if they used Apple’s in-app system to sell ebooks via their reader apps.

    In effect Apple has used it’s platform to kill off its competitors’ ability to sell ebooks in the iOS ecosphere forcing them to make sales outside the ecosphere and later download them to their users apps.

    Eoin

  • Martin Belam // Nov 9, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    “This Cambrian explosion of interfaces that touchscreens have ushered in is exhilarating in the truest sense; I’m pleased to see new ideas flourish, but I’m frankly tired at having to keep track of so many different UI conventions.”

    I’ve argued before that we are in “the animated gif” years of tablet design. Think about how many conventions there were and still are for navigation on the web, and in the first few years of graphical browsing there was an explosion in new tech/mark-up that allowed dynamic drop-downs, hover states etc etc. I’m sure the same will happen with touch interfaces.

  • Ian // Mar 29, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    With regards to the Atlantic App and RareWire, you fail to mention that the App is far more than a magazine, the App itself contains a myriad of free web content that functions completely separate from the magazine subscription section. This content is driven by feeds and requires web access.

    However if you completely download an issue of the Atlantic from within the App, it should work perfectly fine when loaded offline.

    Also you mentioned that the Atlantic magazine delivers its pages as images. This is simply not the case, the issues are rendered as PDFs, which will scale as print ready when viewed on the new retina ipad.

    The good news is that currently The Atlantic is simply repurposing their print issues for the ipad, but this is changing shortly. Soon the Atlantic will deliver a version of their magazine tailor made for the ipad.

    I do hope you revisit the App at that point and make your judgements then.

    Ian

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