I’ve been keen to address this headline that appeared in Mashable almost three months ago: “Tablet Readers Don’t Want Interactivity, Says Hearst President.”
Naturally, my first reaction was (in imitation of my daughter’s use of New York emphasis), “Seriously???” I mean, can you imagine the entire demographic of iPad users not wanting interactivity? That just seems absurd, right? It flies in the face of everything I know—everything the industry knows—about tablet users and interactive media.
But the provocative title is really a bit disingenuous. The story is really about how Hearst and their software vendor Scrollmotion built a tablet interface that didn’t quite work out. You can hardly call that a scientifically valid experiment proving that readers do not want interactivity in general.
Imagine if you were to cater a Weight Watchers convention by serving donuts. If you got barraged with complaints, could you really then claim that people in general don’t like donuts? It’s not a bad analogy; people love donuts, but just not in every context, not for every meal, and not necessarily in large doses.
First, let me make this important point: In the next few posts I’m going to discuss some fundamentals of tablet UI design, but I’m not intending to bash Hearst or Scrollmotion for their abandoned design, nor am I in any way suggesting that they didn’t follow the principles I describe. In fact, Esquire and ScrollMotion won the ASME National Magazine Award for best mobile magazine app, and Mashable called it “among the best of its class.”
Now, I haven’t used the app myself, but judging from the following quote in the Mashable article, it sounds as if they pulled out all the stops:
The first issues of titles, including Esquire and O: The Oprah Magazine, were loaded with multimedia and interactive elements: photographs and graphic models that could be swiveled 360 degrees, illustrations that became animated upon touch. Audio and video made frequent appearances, too.
So why did Hearst drop the Scrollmotion-designed app in November and take it in-house, in a much toned-down format? My guess is, it was too radical a departure for their demographic. Perhaps they needed a slower introduction. Some insight comes from this quote:
“We were frustrated with how unstable the app was,” David Granger, Esquire’s editor-in-chief, told me in an interview at Esquire’s offices earlier this month. “We had a lot of complaints, a lot of bad reviews.”
Now, hindsight is 20/20 and no one likes to be second-guessed, but if the app had instability (and it doesn’t matter whether this means bugs or a quirky UI that took some getting used to), then of course adoption will suffer. But again, you can hardly say that the lessons Hearst learned from building one “unstable” app can be used to state unequivocally that “tablet readers don’t want interactivity.”
The Esquire app sounds wonderfully creative. Creativity is essential for innovation, but you can’t always start by reinventing the wheel. Let’s think about that literally. Imagine if someone decided that a better car would have 5 wheels, a joystick instead of a steering wheel, and the driver positioned lying prone on the roof like a snow sled? Innovative? Yes. Better? Well, you certainly wouldn’t do a lot of texting while driving. But it would likely be too radical to catch on, and Hertz certainly wouldn’t adopt it for their fleet.
It’s the same with any art, from poetry to painting. You have to understand the core principles of the art, and then decide to waver from those core principles from a position of knowledge. If you don’t know what the core principles are, then you don’t know the art. In his youth Picasso studied formal oil painting, copying the old masters. Even the famous abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock began his career with formal study of naturalistic and representational painting.
Ezra Pound wrote “No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” Meaning, departure from a standard means understanding what you are departing from. We cannot depart from standards unless we know what those standards are, and why they exist. Professional graphic designers are schooled in design principles, as are information architects and user experience designers.
So how do you design a tablet app for readers? Well, saying that I know a general case is like saying that I know how to build the best house. They come in all types, sizes, visual designs, and budgets, for all demographics from the conservative to the avant garde. Similarly, a tablet needs to be designed for its audience, its purpose, and its content. Will it house a few hundred detailed and often timeless articles? Or 200 fresh news stories a day? Will it be selling donuts? Form, after all, depends on function.
But any architect can tell you the fundamentals about how you make those decisions, and can share common best practices about how kitchens and bathrooms and closets work, in all houses. So that’s what I’ll share with you in the next few posts; the basics you need to consider when designing or ordering up your tablet interface.