A Popular Misconception

Popular Science on iPadThough I opted for a 3G-enabled iPad that won’t be delivered until later in the month, I was able to get my hands on a Wi-Fi-only model today, one of two devices that we bought at the office. In my limited use so far it feels terrific, though until I’m actually in possession of an iPad I can call my very own, it’ll be still too early to decide how much I like or dislike it. Without really being able to customize a machine like this for my needs — installing my preferred apps and loading my personal data onto it — it feels a little bit like a model home; attractive enough, but not really cozy just yet.

In playing with iPad-optimized apps, I’m watching with particular interest to see how content publishers are approaching the platform. One that has gotten a fair amount of exposure is the Popular Science app, a digital version of the longstanding print magazine that has put forward an ambitious, visually rich attempt at embracing the things that only a tablet device can do.

The Good, the Bad and the Hard-to-Use

I can’t decide whether I’m distressed or excited about what experiments like this represent. It’s actually not the idea of a digital magazine that I’m talking about here; I’m lukewarm at best about the notion that periodicals will be able to re-create the experience of newsstand issues on a tablet device. Rather, I’m talking about something more narrow: this inaugural issue of Popular Science on the iPad, while gorgeous and impressive, is also gimmicky, repetitive and unusable. It’s a noble attempt, but it’s also a disappointment.

At heart, it illustrates a collision point between interaction design and traditional publication design, one in which the latter prevails. To be sure, the sensibility that governs this particular expression of Popular Science is decidedly print-like; images are luxuriously large, beautifully rendered — and largely static. And to look at the app even for a moment is to recognize immediately that the images are privileged over nearly everything else.

What little interactivity there is on offer is minimal at best. I find it hard to believe that real readers and users are going to be interested in this particular mode of visual expression and interactivity that is neither a static image nor full-motion video, but rather something like primitive animation — think of early Hannah-Barbera cartoons, and you get a sense of how constricted are the interactions here.

And they’re repetitive, too; over and again, it’s the same basic format in which a layer of type slides pointlessly against the backdrop of a fixed image. That repetitiveness does little to counter the general feeling of placelessness throughout the app; the navigation is well-meaning but fussy at best, but honestly much closer to incompetent. (As we get out of the gate with iPad publishing, can we just very quickly impose a moratorium on displaying instructions on how to use reading interfaces? If you need to explain it, we should all agree, then the design isn’t doing its job.) I got lost and frustrated repeatedly, and then I got bored.

So, I don’t know whether to feel distressed that so much apparent effort is being invested in something that I think is a fundamentally ill-advised idea, or, on the other hand, to feel excited that, finally, print designers are going to have to face up to reality and learn how to design for real users. They’ve complained for years that the Web offers precious few opportunities for doing really beautiful design, and many of them have been waiting with great anticipation for the iPad as a chance to finally show the digital world what good design looks like. Well, time to man up, folks. I hope you can do better than this.

I should be fair here, though. Publishing’s future — on the iPad, particularly — is a complicated issue for me. Over the years, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty cynical about the ability to monetize digital content, as much as I desperately want it to succeed. So it’s hard to fault Popular Science for trying; their app is at the very least a bolder gesture than the app I’ve been involved with at The Times, that’s for sure. No further comment on that.

Anyway, I’m only touching here on a little bit of what I’m thinking and feeling about publishing on the iPad here. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming days.

  1. Khoi,

    It seems that the real question is ‘how engaging can they make their advertising?’

    If they can make advertising effective, save by not printing or paying postage—they will be able to either invest more in interactivity or lower the subscription rates to get a wider distribution.

    My money goes to Wired and either US weekly or People to pave a way for other magazines.

    Also, if someone wants to make money I would suggest making iPad format ads and serve them via an API to iPad devs.

  2. These are clearly the early days. We will have to sit through many design missteps that are some sort of frankensteinian merger of the media camps.

    I do believe that we will come out on the other side with some exciting new ways of presenting information.

  3. I would encourage you not to shy away from your point on how print designers need to man up. Its easy to raise that point and quickly withspdraw under the guise of empathy. The empathy is well-meaning of course, but ultimately allows us to drag our feet a couple more inches.

    The Internet has been here for 15 years. Sure, its constantly changing but thats not going to change anytime soon, if ever. When a person is given all the tools to change his situation and refuses, in any sense of the word, he is admitting failure. Worse, he is choosing failure. Worst of all, he has no excuses, and every time we nod our heads in some pseudo-parental sympathy, we are creating and installing excuses for that man. Doesn’t make the problem much better when even the audience is now brainwashed into grieving. Brainwashed may be too harsh a term, but we the audience are surely convinced.

  4. The whole concept of paying for digital content in one app because it looks more like it does in the print version, despite its being free or much cheaper in another app, the browser, is just unrealistic.

    Perhaps these implementations feel phony because the people doing them know this in their heart of hearts.

    If anything, I think these apps will make us realize that we like reading periodicals in our browsers and newsreaders after all, what with the common design standards that have evolved.

  5. I think the real issue is wether the tools are available and user friendly enough to create these digital versions. Apple has made creating these Apps very hard for designers who don’t know how to code in Objective C or use Xcode.

    If Flash was allowed as a content creation and displaying tool, I’m sure we would get a much better result. But as it stands, in these early days, we are force to use clunky tools like this:


  6. I agree with you Khoi. At the very least they got it backwards. It should scroll horizontally within an article (varying columns, more interesting layouts, see thinkingforaliving.org) and vertically across articles.

    First draft, as you say, we have to step up now!

  7. I remember when the first Mac came out. People had a blast with all the various fonts and inserting all sorts of pictures. in the end, it merely created some completely unreadable documents.

    It looks like PS had a lot of fun without much thought of what they really want. In the end, they have to make a readable and navigable site. that works being viewed in either orientation.

  8. As for placelessness, would a paper edge on the left and right that grows bigger/smaller based on where you are in the magazine help?
    Think of a real mag where at the start there’s more paper on the right and at the end it’s all on the left.

  9. Overall I would agree, it took me a few minutes playing with the app to understand some of the features, even then I know there’s a lot I’m missing… you shouldn’t need a manual to read a magazine.

    On the other-hand, this is the sort of thing that Popular Science should be doing. It fits their image. It’s an interesting proof of concept, but it needs more time baking. In the end though I would be more apt to purchase content that was doing things that you could never do in print. Although I was disappointed by the Popular Science experience, I also feel like this might be the future of magazines.

  10. For all the visual shine of the Popular Science app, I have to say what has really impressed me are the news apps. Popular Science is making a daring experiment, but the news apps have captured a usability that the e-magazines haven’t yet achieved, while still feeling like you’re living in the future.

    In particular, the NYTimes Editor’s Choice app genuinely /feels/ like the NYTimes. Friends who have used my iPad have been struck by that and commented on it. Similarly, the USA Today app really looks like USA Today, and yet is still quite usable. BBC News, as well, is unmistakably the Beeb.

    Of them all, the NYT app is still the best-of-breed, however. Best usability of all of them, while most seamlessly retaining the branding. The layout /feels/ like reading the print version of the times, only better.

    My father, upon using my iPad, remarked, “my Kindle NYT subscription feels old and tired now. I want this instead.”

  11. The Popular Science app does let you know your position in the issue.
    As you pan across there’s a row of lines on the upper left and right overlaying the screen that tell you how much you have left. As you move forward, the lines shift from the right side of the screen to the left. When you’re in the middle, half of them are on the left and half on the right. It might not be the best way to indicate your position, but it’s there. 🙂 I do agree with the point that it’s hard to tell if you can scroll more vertically (you’re pretty much forced to drag every page up just to see if there’s more).

    But I’d consider the repetitiveness of all the gestures just part of the navigation system, which you’d want to have consistent everywhere. Once I got used to tapping left to see the large image, tapping right to bring text back, I really liked using the app and what it offered in terms of putting large photography front and center (instead of only offering small images you have to tap into and out which interrupts your flow of reading the content). That aspect of it is appropriate for Popular Science (and other object/product-oriented content).

  12. You know… there is an old saying that covers most of this sort of criticism.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    The IG (instant gratification) generation really needs to get a grip, a clue, or whatever.

  13. I generally in am agreement that the PopSci app has some serious usability issues, and in some ways feels more like a puzzle than a magazine.

    However…I still think it’s the best attempt at a magazine on the iPad thus far. Why? Because it’s the only one I’ve seen that really tries to treat the iPad as a new medium, and design something appropriate for it. It may fail at that execution in some respects, but at least it *tries.*

    Most of the others (Time, GQ, etc.) give me not much more than a PDF of their print edition with a few embedded videos. So lame.

    All of them have a ways to go before they can be considered an enhancement over reading the articles on the web. There’s no ability to select (and subsequently, copy/paste) text, no linking in/out of the app, no social tools (such as commenting on stories), nothing approaching citizen journalism, etc. Overall, they’re just pretty lame. PopSci is the only one that tries to do something interesting, even if it doesn’t totally succeed.

    The newspaper apps are better, but in many ways I feel like they suffer from the opposite problem: they are too much like the web edition of their respective publication — being too webby is better on iPad than being too print-y, but it’s still not really taking advantage of the device for what it is: something completely new and different.

    Here’s what I want: Give me interactive media. Charts and infographics that let me play with the data. Give me art-directed layouts that make sense for the device, so I don’t have to zoom and pan. Give me links to external resources, just as you do on the web. Let me share stories with my social networks. Let me comment and annotate stories. Let me see the parts of the story other users have annotated the most. Let me quickly and easily sort and filter the stories to only those I care about. Stop thinking of yourself as a “newspaper” or a “magazine” and just make something appropriate and awesome. It’s not a newspaper. It’s not a magazine. Don’t make it look like one. It’s a totally blank 10 inch canvas. Embrace that. Don’t try to convince me it’s paper with browned edges and page turn effects. I know better, because I’m not an idiot, and neither are the rest of your users.

    For my money, the two best journalism apps on the iPad thus far are the ones from NPR and Reuters. They’re not perfect, but they’re much more appropriate to this device than most of the others.

    Here’s the real problem: publishers are looking at the iPad as the device that’s going to take them back to the model they’ve been comfortable and successful with for years, rather than looking at it as an opportunity to find a new, more effective model in today’s world.

    In other words, they seem to be making the same mistake they’ve been making on the web for years.

  14. Jeff: well said, thanks for adding your comments. In fact, if I had any real ad revenue on this site, I’d owe you a portion of it for inserting a whole blog post inside this comment thread.

    I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly the part about Popular Science deserving credit for trying to do something native to the medium. It’s a very good point; other publishers aren’t as advanced in their thinking.

    And the execution can improve; on that I think that we’re both of one mind. Where I differ is that I’m not even sure the idea of ‘a magazine’ has any more value on a tablet device than it does in a desktop browser, and certainly not as much value as it has in the physical world, where it’s in clear decline.

    My reasoning is that I believe that people just aren’t that interested in magazines anymore. By and large magazines have traditionally existed for two reasons: either to provide a general survey of events (e.g., Newsweek, New York Magazine), or to provide a deep, sustained investigation into a niche (e.g., Guns & Ammo, Wallpaper). Neither of these purposes seem as relevant in the digital age; the Web replaces the former with more up-to-the-minute news coverage and opinion than you can shake a stick at, and it also provides you more information and coverage than you absorb for any given niche interest.

    In that landscape, I’m not sure it makes sense at all to replicate that packaging in digital form — even if you can provide a truly native, truly well-art directed, truly social networked user experience, as you suggest. As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve pretty much built a Web site, so why not just look at it in a Web browser, where it’s fast, probably free and doesn’t require a massive download (as many of these magazine apps do)?

  15. You may be right about the magazine not having much value left in any incarnation. I’m not sure. I hope you’re right, but I really don’t know. I am more compelled to respond to this bit:

    > As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve pretty much built a Web site, so why not just look at it in a Web browser, where it’s fast, probably free and doesn’t require a massive download (as many of these magazine apps do)?

    Short and simple response: I agree. In most cases, for most publications, it probably makes sense to just have a web site.

    Longer response: I think you’re hitting on where my complaints that these apps are either “too print-y” or “too webb-y” come from. If you’re going to make a print magazine, fine — make a print magazine. If you’re going to make a web site, fine — make a website. But if you’re going to make an iPad app that is pretty much just like your print magazine or pretty much just like your website, then I think you’re wasting your time (and money). Your resources would be much better spent improving your print or web product (and God knows most of them need it).

    But if you insist upon making an iPad app, even though you probably don’t need one, please try to make it something different. That’s my point, I think. 🙂

    I’m fond of saying: If two things are exactly the same, one of them is unnecessary.

    So far, every iPad app I’ve from a journalism outfit is similar enough to their print or web product that I’d say they’re unnecessary (except maybe the PopSci app — at least it felt like an attempt).

  16. > I hope you’re right, but I really don’t know.

    Eek! I mean to say, “I hope you’re NOT right!” I love magazines and definitely would prefer not to see them die!

  17. Personally, I’m just amazed that publishers have reverted so quickly to the antiquated concept of monthly “issues”, that consumers have to keep re-purchasing. It’s not only a regressive mindset that’s going to run off the road economically very quickly, but I think it drives a lot of the experience issues you’re pointing out.

    I know this is obvious, but the fundamental question — always — is “What am I buying?”, and when you think about what you _could_ be buying from Popular Science through an iPad, then a slickly re-packaged print experience just doesn’t make any sense at all. (And neither does a touch-enabled version of their free website.) If they’re not offering some way to viscerally re-arrange, dissect and massage information through a touch interface, then I really don’t have any interest in paying to experience it through an iPad.

  18. For me personally, the most interesting thing about all this is the notion of content “apps” introduced by the iPhone and (to be?) fully realized on the iPad.

    In many ways the value-added functionality and experience design of these apps is analogous to that provided by paper magazines over other sources of information. When done well, this will defeat the “people want online content to be free” thesis.

    This does not in any way entail that the magazine category will translate magically to the iPad. It’s an evolve or die situation, in which some magazines will have an advantage over other potential competitors for that attention because they have—in addition to excellent writers—visionaries and design thinkers on board.

    The subscription model makes perfect sense. The monthly issue does not.

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