With tablets, publication design returns to the forefront

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Many publishers have spent the last decade focusing more on search optimization – driving eyeballs to their website content – than on delivering great user experiences online. Now, the emergence of the tablet is putting the emphasis back on publication design – but with a new set of rules and guiding principles.

“We’re learning that design is incredibly important on the tablet,” said Joe McCambley, co-founder and creative director at The WonderFactory, an interactive agency. “There’s some urgency to get on those devices now, but you really have to think through your content strategy and your interaction with consumers, and optimize around the tablet.”

Some user experience experts believe early attempts at magazine apps have, for the most part, fallen short. Cia Romano, CEO of user experience design agency Interface Guru, lamented the current state of iPad magazine presentation in a recent blog post:

The usability problems for most magazine apps are sadly predictable, and much too common. Users, whether experienced iPad owners or first-time experimenters, run into trouble when trying to find tables of contents; when trying to reach a specific article within a magazine app; when distinguishing advertising from content; when stumbling over decorative elements masquerading as user interface controls, and vice-versa. They have no idea how much time it would take to experience an app in its entirety, or whether they actually had seen all of the content within an app.

Many UI challenges to address

The problems are not easy to overcome. Touch-screen interfaces, different screen sizes, and interactivity are just some of the challenges that publishers face when developing apps or repackaging digital content for tablets and smartphones. Throw in the competing platforms – iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, etc. – and the design headaches can increase exponentially.

“Each device has its own use case,” Sara DeWitt, vice president of digital and new media at PBS Kids Interactive, said during a panel discussion at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “You can’t just take an online game and port it to a tablet. A touch screen changes the experience dramatically.”

In its user experience guidelines for Windows developers, Microsoft describes five key characteristics for touch-based input.

  • Natural and intuitive. Everyone knows how to point with a finger and touch things. Object interactions are designed to correspond to how users interact with objects in the real world in a consistent manner.
  • Less intrusive. Using touch is silent, and consequently much less distracting than typing or clicking, especially in social situations such as meetings. Compared to using a pen, using a finger is particularly convenient because you don't have to locate or pick up a pen.
  • Portable. A computer with touch capability can be more compact because most tasks can be completed without a keyboard, mouse, or touchpad. It can be more flexible because it doesn't require a work surface. It enables new places and scenarios for using a computer.
  • Direct and engaging. Touch makes you feel like you are directly interacting with the objects on the screen, whereas using a mouse or touchpad always requires you to coordinate hand movements with separate on-screen pointer movements—which feels indirect by comparison.
  • Reduced accuracy. Users can't target objects as accurately using touch, compared to a mouse or pen. Consequently, you can't expect users to tap or manipulate small objects.

Improving interactivity

New tools are beginning to emerge to help publishers optimize content for tablets and smartphones. WonderFactory, for example, is partnering with Texterity to develop a series of design modules for adding interactive features to digital editions or browser-based web content.

The first three modules are expected to ship this quarter, supporting slide shows, 360-degree animations and Twitter/Facebook integration. Seven more are in the works for release over the next six months; functionality for those modules will be influenced in part by publisher requests.

“We’re looking at the experiences with some of our larger clients to determine what’s useful to them and what consumers desire,” said McCambley.

The Wonderfactory modules could also enhance the advertising experience – another important yet currently underutilized design element of tablet-based publications.

“A lot of agencies are lagging behind publishers in optimizing content for tablets,” said McCambley. “They’re still trying to force the same old models – a 30-second video in an app ad.  But they have to do a lot more work to take full advantage of the form factor and provide something that’s actually helpful to consumers.”

In search of a more consistent UI

Quality presentation of both editorial and advertising is critical to the success of publications on tablets because of the personal nature of the devices and the “lean-back” reading experience they create for users.

“Content creators are hypersensitive about how their content looks on these devices,” Russell Reeder, president and CEO of digital content services provider LibreDigital, said at CES. A lack of standards, however, will continue to make it difficult for publishers to produce apps that deliver consistently high-quality experiences across different platforms and devices.

“Apps in the Android store aren’t presented in a consistent way, and the UI is all over the map,” said Chad Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing at IdentityMine, a user-experience design agency.  Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 platform, by contrast, provides a good middle ground between Android’s open environment and Apple’s more restrictive iOS development platform, Brown said.

“The first [Windows Phone 7] apps we’re seeing are following Microsoft’s guidelines enough to provide inspiration for a standard UI,” he added. IdentityMine recently launched seven Windows Phone 7 apps.

Still, Windows devices have a long hill to climb against the iPad and the new crop of Android tablets. And the hill is getting steeper. Apple is preparing to release its next-generation iPad 2, while Google is putting the finishing touches on its tablet-optimized Android version, dubbed Honeycomb.

“We’ve spent a lot of time refining the user experience in Honeycomb,” Google Engineering VP Andy Rubin wrote in a blog post earlier this week. “Many of Android’s existing features will really shine on Honeycomb: refined multi-tasking, elegant notifications, access to over 100,000 apps on Android Market, home screen customization with a new 3D experience and redesigned widgets that are richer and more interactive.”

For now – and for the foreseeable future – publishers will have to make difficult decisions about which platforms and devices to support.

“Publishers will have to be ingenious about making the right compromises at the right time,” Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing for Research in Motion’s QNX Software Systems division, said at CES. “Making something beautiful takes time, resources, and it dictates the technology you have to use to get there.”

Some are embracing the challenge of creating optimized designs for different screen sizes. “We believe there can be an accessible, pleasing reading experience on any device a consumer might choose,” said Doug Carlson, CEO of VIVmag, an all-digital magazine published by Zinio, which released an iPad app last October. “There’s even a landscape reading experience with a 4.2-inch screen size. That’s pretty intriguing to us.”

A never-ending design process?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for publishers developing apps is that the design process never really ends – even after the app is released.

“When you ship a mobile app, it goes out to the ecosystem and you’re immediately hounded with feedback,” said IdentityMine’s Brown. “You have to address that feedback as soon as possible, and you have to address it regularly. Because as easy as it is for a consumer to get an app on a phone, it’s even easier to take it off if you don’t deliver a quality experience.”

Additional resources

User Interface Guidelines for Mobile and Tablet Devices (Simon Whatley)

3 Navigation Models for the iPad (Curioux Blog)

Magazine iPad app winners: Entertainment Weekly (Interface Guru)

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