App discovery: Check. Now, about that user experience ...

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Apple’s Newsstand resolves one major complaint that publishers have had with Apple: how to make their digital editions “discoverable” against the hundreds of thousands of other entertainment and utility apps vying for consumers’ attention in the App Store.

Magazines have been flying off the digital shelves of Apple’s Newsstand, which opened its doors on Oct. 12. The dedicated space for magazines and newspapers has drawn a steady string of superlatives from publishers – quite a shift from the general grumbling that has accompanied Apple’s subscription, revenue-sharing and customer data policies. 

“We are extremely excited about what Newsstand is doing for our business,” said Gregg Hano, vice president and group publisher of Bonnier’s Technology Group, which includes Popular Science and Popular Photography. Hano told Audience Development that Bonnier was seeing “somewhere on the order of a tenfold increase per week in unit sales” of Popular Science+ and Popular Photography+.

Other publishers are reporting equally impressive results. The New York Times iPad app saw 189,000 new user downloads in the first week post-Newsstand, a sevenfold increase from 27,000 the week before, a spokeswoman told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

Condé Nast announced that, in the two weeks following the Newsstand debut, per-week subscription sales increased 268% across all nine of its iPad titles, while single-copy sales rose 142% compared to the previous eight weeks.

Is the bump sustainable?

Now that Apple has provided a dedicated storefront for marketing magazine and newspaper apps, publishers are likely to find themselves under more pressure to improve the user experience of those apps with better design and device-specific functionality. A boost in subscription sales won’t be sustainable unless the quality of digital editions continues to improve. (A new report from Flurry finds that app user retention drops off sharply after the first month of usage.)

Publishers are in many cases still searching for the proper balance between a bland digital replica and an overly designed memory hog. Just this week, the premiere edition of Condé Nast Traveler’s iPad app landed with a virtual thud in Apple’s Newsstand, tipping the memory scales at a hefty 784M bytes, according to Mashable.

A Condé spokesperson attributed the size of the issue “to a series of 3D rotating maps of the South Pacific,” Mashable reported.

(Note to your app designer: Ix-nay the 3D rotating maps.)

Tablets represent an opportunity for publishers to rethink digital editions way beyond what they’ve offered to this point. Part of the evolution will require abandoning traditional print conventions. “Why do mobile magazine replicas need a page flip?” Jeff Bruss, president of Cole Publishing, asked attendees at the recent Niche Digital conference in Chicago.  “There are ways to make things intuitive and there are ways to just put crap online. The mobile user experience needs to be more intuitive.”

The proper balance point between remaining faithful to the print design and stepping completely outside the box will differ by publisher, and by publication. Nieman Lab wrote in July about Condé VP of digital magazine development Scott Dadich’s approach:

For a company like Condé Nast, differentiating its titles on tablets is as much about the brand as it is about the reader — which is why Dadich relies on something he calls the “design fidelity spectrum,” a concept that slides from rigid faithfulness to the original product on one end to a completely new and unique look on the other. Most newspaper and magazine websites, and to an extent mobile apps, have little in common with their print counterparts. Conversely, The New Yorker and GQ, even with the addition of audio, video, and animation, still track fairly closely to their origins. Finding the right spot for your title, and determining how it meets up with your readers’ needs, is the big question, Dadich said.

Divining readers’ needs within the context of a device that introduces concepts such as “swiping” is a challenge for any app developer. Nielsen Norman Group’s most recent iPad usability study, conducted in May, found that iPad apps were afflicted with common problems such as “swipe ambiguity” – in which the presence of too many swipable items on a page can confuse users. Also perplexing: Requiring users to swipe to move between pages. “Many users couldn't turn the page because they swiped in the wrong spot,” NNG’s Jakob Nielsen wrote in a blog post summarizing the study. “Their typical conclusion? The app is broken.”

Nielsen also noted that many apps squeezed information into too-small areas – a particularly vexing issue for “touchable” spots – or featured too much navigation, on which he bestowed a new acronym: TMN. “Any given user interface should contain only a few [navigation] techniques,” he wrote.

One example of excess navigation is the “popover” – a text box used to display article thumbnails. A lengthy list of thumbnails on every page – appearing as a carousel, perhaps, or as part of a slider – had low usability, NNG found.

“User patterns when reading magazines on the iPad are different than paper magazines,” saidRaluca Budiu, a user experience specialist at Nielsen Norman Group and the lead researcher on the company’s iPad and tablet studies. In an interview this past summer, Budiu said a staple of print magazines – the table of contents – is actually more effective in a digital publication than it is in print.

“With a paper magazine, you browse, so the TOC not that important,” she said. “But with the iPad, people use the TOC as a hub – they keep going back to it. Putting all of that information in a small popover makes it harder to use, because you have to do a lot of scrolling. It’s actually better to put the TOC on a separate page.”

Other problems cited in the study include accidental activation, caused by unintended touches (exacerbated by the lack of a Back button), and the presence of “active areas” that don’t look touchable, meaning that users don’t take advantage of the functionality.

PDF replicas don’t suffer from many of these drawbacks, of course – because they tend not to take advantage of specific iPad functionality. That’s a problem in itself, especially for trade or niche publishers that are eager to produce an iPad app but don’t have the resources for custom design and development. Smaller publishers may be better off focusing on optimizing their websites for tablets and other mobile devices.

Wherever they fall in the "design fidelity spectrum," most publishers have a long way to go in delivering digital editions that truly take advantage of the tablet reading experience.

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