Tue 01 Jun
There’s been plenty of discussion lately about how print magazines have been swinging big and missing big on the iPad, how their attempts at translating the value of their printed pages into apps have been ill-advised or clumsy. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson sums it up best, I think, in a recent blog post in which he declares that he prefers content in a browser rather than in an app, and I tend to agree.
However, I think it’s worth pointing out that one publication, at least, has gotten it right: Time Warner’s Entertainment Weekly has a terrific app called EW’s Must List. Unexpectedly, it’s a user experience winner. It may never achieve recognition for bringing penetrating content to the app space, but in my mind it nails precisely what a print brand needs to do in order to win a share of the attention market on this platform.
Actually, EW’s app can hardly be credited with swinging big, but therein lies the genius. The app makes no pretenses at bringing the full breadth of the printed magazine’s content to the iPad. Instead, EW’s designers have made the bold and savvy choice to bring users very little — as much as makes for a great user experience, and no more. Once a week, the app pulls down ten short pieces of content, a ‘must-see list’ of samplings from essential pop culture currency including movies, television, music videos, books, music, etc.
The splash screen is a beautifully designed menu of these ten items, arranged in a cleverly constructed grid that is completely unchanging from week to week, yet still manages to be visually surprising. Hats off to the EW visual design team for creating a smart template framework in which standardization and variety co-exist harmoniously. It looks sharp.
Tap on any item, and you drill down to the article level, with a bit more written content (though not much), accompanied by big visuals and friendly, unambiguously clickable buttons that help you to read, watch, listen, buy, download etc. If you hadn’t already gotten the idea from the splash screen, clicking through to the article gives you the entire concept of the app: it’s a very simple list of ten interesting things, with links to finding out more about them. The whole thing is so logical, so intuitive that I’ve found myself perusing through these articles and their links for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time without even realizing it.
Notice too, that the app is devoid of explanatory interface text. While there are of course labels accompanying buttons and icons, completely absent is the regrettable tendency of print magazine apps to use non-functional captions to explain what their app interfaces do or how to use them — instead of just designing intuitive interfaces and affordances to begin with. Just as the presence of such text in other apps is a clear flag that those interfaces are poorly conceived if not broken, the absence of such text here calls subtly powerful attention to the fact that this app is well-designed.
Of course, it must have been easy for EW’s designers to make so many of the right design choices here because at its core EW’s Must List is not just a good design but also a well conceived one. The app is a shining example of the less is more credo, yes, but it’s also a rare case study where product design intelligence wins out over the editorial prerogative, wins out over that tendency on the part of content creators to “get it all in there because we made it” and not because it’s truly needed.
The core idea at work here evinces a perceptive, efficient, even ruthless focus on delivering what users really want, thereby creating a clear, simple case for the usefulness of the content. It’s a huge win that this app entirely omits the printed magazine’s full table of contents, special features highlighting their prized columnists, elaborate video extras complementing their feature stories, charts, slide shows, or any of their blogs. (Shockingly, there’s not even a link to subscribe to the printed magazine.) All of these things make sense (to some degree or other) at EW.com, but their absence makes this app all the better.