When good journalism isn’t enough

January 10, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the iPad for ages, and about my reading experience with various publications and apps. Khoi Vinh (former design director of NYTimes.com) beat me to it months ago with a great piece on his “iPad Magazine Stand”.

Vinh’s overall verdict on the majority of magazine apps?

They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all.

His point—which I fully agree with—is that publishers have been trying to hard to recreate the print experience, but with high! tech! extras! that are really gimmicks, without making use of the platform’s… comparative advantage isn’t quite the right term, but it’s close. I’m a bit of a Luddite, for a web person, and while making things because they’re cool is a fun experiment, for most publishers, it’s a waste of resources. In fact, I have two rules on content and technology (in addition to the biggest rule, which is “don’t annoy your readers”):

1. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you should do it.
2. If the interface needs instructions, it’s bad user experience.

Vinh writes of the New Yorker app that while the journalism is superb (it always is), the reading experience is terrible, from the interface to the price to the gigantic file size. (This is my problem with the Zinio iPad newsstand, too—I love having all of my magazines in one place, but do the files have to be so huge that I have to wait for them to download before I can read?)

And Matthew Ingram makes a number of great points about the Esquire app in an article on GigaOM:

…the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic, or related material of any kind, let alone any kind of social features that allow readers to share the content with their friends.

Which brings me to another rule Canadian publishers should be careful to follow: just because the Americans are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. They’re experimenting, too, and with bigger budgets than we’ll ever have. Don’t throw money you don’t have at something that’s unproven.

On a positive note, there are some publishers doing cool things on the iPad. Flipboard is one, of course. And, Vinh notes:

…what publishers should really be focusing on is clever, nimble, entertaining apps like EW’s Must List or Gourmet Live. Neither of those are perfect, but both actively understand that they must translate their print editions into a utilitarian complement to their users’ content consumption habits.

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