Tue 22 Mar
For the past few days I’ve been using and enjoying TweetMag on my iPad, a new app from the smart folks at Toronto design studio Teehan + Lax. It’s a beautifully designed reader-style application that “uses your Twitter account to create simple magazines.” It’s very much in the mode of Flipboard, which also transforms your social media stream into magazine-like presentations of eclectic content.
I’ve often spoken of Flipboard as a promising hint at a truly new kind of reading experience, one that employs the power of social graphs and the magic of superior user experience design to present users with a coherent view of the world. Flipboard, in my opinion, is the first step on what will either be a long road or a steep climb towards a new way of interfacing with written content. Unfortunately TweetMag, as nice as it is, isn’t quite that second step. It’s an attractive refinement with merits of its own, but it’s still not the breakthrough that this genre of software is looking for.
To me, Flipboard and TweetMag haven’t yet established a clear use case for themselves. Primarily, this is because they’re largely duplicative of content that I can access elsewhere — through Twitter or Facebook or RSS — and so they can’t help but suffer from a feeling of redundancy. If I don’t log into Twitter regularly, I feel like I’m missing something, but there’s no similar urgency with Flipboard or TweetMag. I’ll only launch them when I want a more leisurely browsing experience with higher production values.
As a designer, I would like to think that would be pretty often, but in reality it’s less frequent than I’d like to admit. That’s because the core reading experience of accessing content through Twitter, Facebook and RSS — though messy, disorganized and un-designed — is usually just fine.
I’ve criticized print magazines for bringing a disastrous lack of imagination to their iPad apps, so it’s only fair to criticize pure-play digital products like Flipboard and TweetMag for relying too much on the trick of pulling in content from my social graph and re-presenting it to me in a more elegant form. I actually don’t believe that idea accounts for the entirety of Flipboard or TweetMag’s ambitions, but for the time being that’s pretty much the primary value that the average user understands from using them.
What could amplify this value is relevance. So far, these apps have done remarkably well simulating the orderliness of traditional print layout through algorithmic means, but the effect is still regrettably superficial. In their automated layouts, they frequently give higher priority or larger placement to insubstantial or just plain inane content; meanwhile more newsworthy, more important or more relevant content is often relegated to awkwardly subordinate regions of the page. We are probably (hopefully) on the cusp of relevancy engines being commonly available to independent software developers, so with luck we’ll soon start seeing that these apps can produce automated layouts that are also intelligently composed, that reflect some real semantic understanding of the content they’re visually manipulating. That should make a big difference in the coherence of the user experience, which I think will go a long way towards making these apps more compelling, too.
Any improvement in relevance will also need to go hand in hand with a more mature, more dynamic usage of the social graph. Though these apps tap into the robust activity in my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream, and though they’re commonly referred to as “social magazines,” they’re more of an echo of that activity than they are a true part of it. Any number of my friends could be avid Flipboard or TweetMag users and it wouldn’t make a difference to my own experience as a user, because the use of these apps is not reflected back into the network, does not create new network connections or benefits. They merely access value where they should also be creating value.
So these apps need to work in a fundamentally different way: as more of my friends access content through Flipboard or TweetMag, my experience should get richer and richer. The apps could then become more than just a reader for links found in my Twitter stream. They could let me see which stories my friends are reading, sharing, or tweeting the most, and it could prioritize what I see based on that information. They could help me form and access communities around topics, or contribute content of my own, or add associations with other, similar content. There’s a deep reservoir of opportunity here; some of it would be easy to pull off but a lot of it would be difficult to make happen, because it would entail turning these apps from magazines into truly social products that just happen to look like beautifully designed magazines. That’s not an easy task, but someone is sure to do it, and whoever that is — whether it’s Flipboard or TweetMag or someone else entirely — they’ll stand the best chance, in my opinion, of creating a truly new, truly engrossing reading experience.