A lot of smart people are commenting about newspaper and magazine iPad apps as though the apps’ features are set in stone. There’s no reason for there not to be links within an app, for instance, and there’s no reason to think that the developers are ignorant of that fact. Yet, I’ve seen complaints about the lack of links and other fairly trivial aspects of iPad apps from several, usually more perspicacious, sources. While conceding that some publisher’s misguided belief they’ve “rethought” the magazine are so far off the mark, we should be looking at apps in context of readers, journalism, and the Web. Considering that apps are in their early stages of development vis-á-vis the browser’s relatively long history, news apps have got a leap ahead of Web sites in reader-experience terms alone.
The New York Times and Financial Times are two instances of serious content apps that are not necessarily feature-rich now but have a business imperative to evolve, and the USA Today and Entertainment Weekly apps are leading the way in design. They show great promise on the road to the newspaper becoming merely “the news.” I find myself gravitating to the comparably simpler FT and Times apps on my iPad, despite their lack of features, instead of the Web and certainly opposed to consuming content on my laptop, and I think in time others will too.
The apps’ point of value will arrive when they bring the most powerful features of the Web — personalized browsing, sharing, linking — with a reading experience that the Web clearly lacks. It’s easy to see, looking at the screenshots below, how the app clearly gives us a better reading experience (though, as I’ve mentioned before, app design will spill over into better Web design too):
These are screenshots of the same article taken at the same time. The one on the left is from The New York Times on the Web via iPad’s Safari. The other is via The New York Times iPad app (n.b. the video embedded in the lower right.).
There’s no contest. The app is a better user experience, despite the — arguable — fact that The New York Times Web site is one of the better designed news sites out there.
With the app you can effortlessly turn the page (less effortlessly than turning the actual paper and without the time drag and disorientation of loading the next page of a Website), share the article (for the moment limited to email), watch a video, and return to the home screen. That’s it. The isolation and lack of options is a benefit to readers.
There is an easy to distinguish difference in the amount of noise on the page (this is why readers in the know gravitate to Instapaper and Readability - both lacking many of the “features” you’d find on Web sites).
The Web Style Guide points out a fundamental shortcoming of the Web (and one we designers are faced to deal with daily):
Text on the computer screen is hard to read not only because of the low resolution of computer screens but also because the layout of most Web pages violates a fundamental rule of book and magazine typography: the lines of text on most Web pages are far too long for easy reading. Magazine and book columns are narrow for physiological reasons: at normal reading distances the eye’s span of acute focus is only about three inches wide, so designers try to keep dense passages of text in columns not much wider than that comfortable eye span. Wider lines of text require readers to move their heads slightly or strain their eye muscles to track over the long lines of text. Readability suffers because on the long trip back to the left margin the reader may lose track of the next line.
While the Times’ app’s columns are meant to mimic print newspapers (a concept the WSJ app took way too far) rather than strike a balance of line length for good readability, the column widths here work well in the fixed space of the iPad’s screen and are far more readable than what we are presented with on Web sites. The Times’ International Herald Tribune, before it was folded into their global offerings, displayed articles in columnar format, so it is possible (though, I’ve tried and it’s difficult to pull off in a dynamic setting) to do that on the Web, but instead we are left with virtually a Web-wide one-size-fits-all text dump.
USA Today’s app has a very clean interface and is easy to use and read. Despite a few issues begging for standard practices for app design, even in these early stages, the app is superior to both the Web site and to print:
I think — and the big publishers are betting — that people will pay for that enhanced experience when it’s backed with good journalism. Jacob Weisberg calls it “pretty;” I call it good design.
There are three-quarters of a million people who still subscribe to The Times, which is not cheap, despite the free version on the Web. Politico, a profitable political news Web site, still maintains its print base. While there are lots of factors driving the legacy of print subscriptions, as tablets and readers improve and proliferate and the overall quality improves, print magazines and newspapers will have little reason to exist in their print form beyond sentimental reasons and we all know sentiment doesn’t pay the bills. While business models will certainly evolve, it’s erroneous to think that the business of journalism will merely cease to exist (that is, no one will pay for it) because there are free alternatives.
I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the “walled garden” being imposed upon the Web in the name of consumerism. The iPad is a harbinger of the end of geekdom, or a new kind of geek. Lets face it, the Open Source era of the Web is not as free and open as it used to be. Everything is monetized; “free” is just another word for indirect monetization or the price of gaining marketshare. But free shouldn’t be a feature, particularly if the implicit costs are high. Think how earlier generations were duped into thinking that beef should be close to free. Now we’re finding that the cost of all that cheap beef is that it’s killing us, not to mention the destruction of our natural resources and the treatment of animals in factory farms.
One tech venture capitalist (whose name Newsweek seems to have lost) points out the irony of paying for print as though we are all aware that the physical object is somehow worth more than the information it contains:
When I buy the dead-tree version of my local newspaper, I have no expectation that it should be free. If I pick it up and walk out of the coffee shop without paying, that’s stealing. But when I walk upstairs to my office and log on to the Web site for the same paper, I feel a divine right to access the entirety of that paper—and 10 years of its archives—for free.
Just as we have allowed our listening experience to be cheapened by the convenience of mp3s, we’ve allowed our reading experience to be cheapened by the freedom of the Web (this spoken, mind you, from a Web designer and avid blogger approaching his eighth year). Among other things (and granted, this isn’t just a Web problem), the prospect of the “news” being driven more by political-backed bias machines rather than objective journalism leaves me with an uneasy feeling. There is a democratic imperative to pay for serious journalism, where, as Bill Keller says (in reply to Michael Massing’s interesting pieces in The New York Review of Books on news and the internet) to “go places, bear witness, develop sources, dig, and explain, and trust readers to draw their own conclusions.”
While it may sound trivial to say that design — much less the design of iPad apps — can lead us out of the mess that the field of journalism finds itself in, it is a critical first step on the road to a new media business model. Richard Lanham writes in his seminal book, The Economics of Attention:
The most obvious new group of attention economists may be the computer-human interface designers. This branch of information design subsumes all the efforts at Web site design, amateur and professional, which we encounter on our daily voyage through cyberspace. The Internet constitutes the pure case of an attention economy. “Eyeballs” constitute the coin of the realm….the economics that matters in this new theater, is design.