The Other Kind of iPad Magazines

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.


How to Use a Magazine

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.

More Relevance, More Social

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.

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  1. Khoi, check out Zite on iPad. It does a great job of using my Twitter feed to find content that is relevant, but not duplicative from Twitter. Not sure how they do it, but I’ve been enjoying reading things I would have otherwise not come across. Nice customization features too.

  2. Very well said. I’ve often tried to describe my problems with apps like Flipboard, but I’ve had trouble explaining that I think it’s a great app, it just has a lot of problems for me. I’m not exactly convinced yet that web content needs to be reformatted into our old ways of reading and discovery. At the moment they feel artificial to me. These apps feel like a skin that goes over my feeds and takes me longer to read them, then Google Reader does. However that’s really my only faults with them now, is their lack of direction. Flipboard has so much potential that I’m still really rooting for it. I hope they can bring more relevancy to like you’ve mentioned.

  3. Tim: I agree that the reformatting of Web content that Flipboard now does is somewhat iffy. This is probably my biggest worry about where Flipboard is going and whether they can fulfill their considerable promise. They’ve decided that it’s important to them to work with publishers and get them on board with letting users access their content through Flipboard. While I understand why it’s probably a necessary strategy, it’s no secret that working with magazine publishers can be slow and painful. Worse, it can serve as a tremendous distraction from the more important and in my opinion more valuable opportunity of building better relevancy and better social interaction into their app. We’ll see how things go.

  4. I was going to recommend the same thing as Ken, and say that you should check out Zite. It’s close to what it looks like you are asking for, as it takes things such as your RSS feed and makes personalized categories for your interests. If you want more customization, you can add your own categories and thumbs up/down stories which you like and don’t like to further customize it. It has some problems, such as stories showing up multiple times and once you like something, it will sometimes put a lot of that in the feed, but overall a really neat program. Plus, it’s free!

  5. Great post, Khoi. You write:

    “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.”

    We’ve developed an app that does precisely that. It’s called BroadFeed. Would be great to get your take on it.

  6. I did love flipboard but got a bit bored of it, now I just use news rack rss reader, and zinio for magazines. National geographic is awesome on the iPad, love it.

  7. I’m only posting this because I found this piece via Zite. I must echo the above comments: Zite is trying to do exactly what you allege no one does. In addition to pulling data from Google Reader and Twitter, it also aggregates from entirely different sources.

    I do come across some redundancy, but I’ve been largely impressed so far. It will be exciting to see where the technology goes as it learns my behavior.

  8. I actually gave Zite a try for a few days when it first debuted and considered writing about it here, but I decided against it because I think it’s kind of a failure. First, there’s nothing particularly interesting about what it’s trying to do that would require it to be an app, and in fact it would seem to work better in a Web browser than in an app. Second, I think the design is pretty bad and difficult to look at; in contrast to Flipboard and TweetMag, which actually look like magazines, Zite looks more like a local community newsletter; I think it’s quite terrible.

    I also don’t think it’s true that Zite is doing ‘exactly what I allege no one does.’ There’s no truly social aspect to Zite; I get no additional benefit from it if lots of my friends use it, nor do they benefit if I use it. What’s more its relevancy seems primitive and unimpressive.

    If it’s not obvious, I find it to be uninspiring.

  9. I agree the design of Zite leaves a lot to be desired, and I’m usually a pretty big design snob when it comes to using or not using apps, but where Zite got it right IMO is that the content they pull is “new.” Ice actually stopped using Flipboard because for the most part, I already see the articles an posts either in my Facebook or Twitter streams. Zite has allowed me to discover new content easily. Flipboard, while much better designed, is simply a wrapper around content I can otherwise get elsewhere.

  10. Khoi, our vision at Zite is eerily similar to what you’ve laid out, though I’m fully willing to admit that what we’ve done so far is just a step along the path to implementing it.

    I agree that we have no explicit social element—yet. But you do get additional benefit from your friends using Zite: they are finding content they would not have found otherwise and sharing it through the usual channels (twitter, facebook, etc.).

    Now, our design is definitely not up to snuff with Flipboard. We’ve been working on technology more than design at this point. But we’re serious about turning that around. If you know any great designers who would be interested in working on this project, I’d love to be connected with them (email klaas at zite.com). Thanks!

  11. I read a great deal of magazines and media on the iPad, and I thought Flipboard was good to start with, then I realised it was duplicating other apps / ways or reading the same information (like the poster at the top RE redundancy). It looked good to start with, but to be fair I haven’t used it in quite a while, so things could have changed.

  12. I’ve got to chime in for zite. As a user of the early edition, flipboard, tweetmag, and now zite, zite is the app that’s excited me most since flipboard. It’s got a unique way of storing your like and dislikes, and I’ve noticed it is definitely grabbing better content the more I tell it what I like. Flipboard was exciting and is still enjoyable, but it shows me boatloads of useless tweets, and doesn’t format things very well. Zite on the other hand finds content I might not otherwise have found. Tweetmag, of all I’ve mentioned, is to me the biggest failure. It still takes forever to load, only uses my twitter feed (which I can read with a twitter client) and while the layout is nice, I find it too slow to bother with, hence my removal of the app after perusing the latest release. Zite will continue getting better from what I see so far.

  13. Matthew: Okay I’ll give Zite another try. Also you’re right about TweetMag being a bit slow. I wouldn’t say it takes “forever to load,” but it could stand to get faster.

  14. Hi, definitely agree with many of your points and the comments above. I really think that Flipboard is awesome and gorgeous but confusing because it puts emphasis on odd things and adds random tweets that are not even articles.

    I wrote a free iPhone app that pulls links from your twitter feed and presents them in a simple RSS like style. I find it useful even though it is not as polished as the iPad apps mentioned above. It doesn’t discover “new” stuff but does help me filter what my friends are reading and posting about.

    I would love to get anyone’s feedback on what they think and would like to see.

    Thanks.

    Julio

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