Nice effort, but the Mag+ app deserves a Mag-

popsciappAs you can imagine, I’m very interested in iPad apps that extend an existing media brand into (onto?) touchscreen mobile devices. One early iPad effort that received a lot of attention during “the first week of iPad” has been Popular Science+, an app based on the “Mag+” development efforts of Popular Science parent company Bonnier. Not only was the Popular Science+ iPad native app available when the App store first began offering such apps, Steve Jobs mentioned it at his Thursday iPhone 0S 4.0 event.

But before I get into the part of this post where I explain the things I believe are wrong with this app, let me stress first how I admire Bonnier and Popular Science being there first, attempting things before others. Six years ago, when Popular Science was one of the first magazines to embrace the blogosophere, I praised their effort and used it as an example to learn from.

But unlike those early efforts where Popular Science succeeded by responding to the moves and mores of a group of readers, their iPad app is an example of trying to steamroll an interpretation of what a medium can or should be if you could re-mold your readers into using a new medium just the way you want them to. Granted, because it contains beautiful art (from the magazine) and you can make pages sweep up or down, and the typography renders well*, the app is attractive and different. But it is also self-absorbed and pretentious. And it reminds me of how people would use 15 different fonts during the first days of desktop publishing. I think it’s a good thing they placed a $5 price-tag on the “concept app,” as the price will keep a lot of people from downloading it and using it and thinking this is what an app from a magazine company is like.

As someone who has been a part of many attempts that haven’t lived up to what I’d hoped (for example, most posts on this blog), I believe in the the idea of “failing fast” — as trying new things and failing is where ultimate success comes from. So I appreciate the comment that Mark Jannot, editor in chief of Popular Science said to my friend, Samir Husni in this post on Samir’s blog:

“We felt there are no downsides for experimenting in public,” Mark said. “Even if the others imitated us, we will learn from our failures and change them to successes. We will always be ahead of the competition because we are aggressively experimenting. Failing in public does not scare us because that is how we learn.”

To be candid, I’ll confess taking that quote out of context a bit as Mark was not referring to the Popular Science+ app, but about their approach to trying anything new. I decided, however, that the quote would work for the iPad app, as well.

Here’s my concern:

A lot of people in decision-making positions (those who can green-light iPad app projects, for instance) are going to look at the Popular Science+ App and decide if this is an iPad app, “there’s no way this is worth investing in.” Worse, still, some designers/editors and others will take a look at it and be thrilled with the big type and art and decide those are the benchmarks of great iPad app design.

I think the primary lesson to be learned from the initial version of the Popular Science+ app is what to avoid.

Andrew Savikas at O’Reilley’s TOC Blog sums up the primary concern I share about the Popular Science+ app:

“…while it’s slick, the problem is … when someone is using your application/game/content/website on their iPad (and mobile device in general) they expect it to behave like everything else they’re using on the device.

This is not just a usability issue, it should be a concern for those who care about great publication design, as well. The iPad offers some extraordinary potential for designers to address some heretofore un-penetrable barriers to great design inherent in the web browser. But the iPad is not so new that designers can approach it as a creatio ex nihilo: something created out of nothing. In their press release about the Mag+, the prototypical approach the Popular Science+ app is providing for its other magazines, the publisher of Popular Science, Bonnier, claims its developers and designers have “re-imagined” the magazine.

Unfortunately, in their re-imagination, they forgot to consider that readers have been using interactive tools for accessing news, information, features and advertising, for almost 20 years. Users have re-imagined magazines themselves, and the conventions, expectations and intuition they bring to any new type of media should not require a user manual to understand.

Rather than me pretend to know what I’m talking about, I’ll defer to the post and comments you can read here on the blog of Khoi Vihn, the design director of NYTimes.com.

Says Khoi:

“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.”

The bottomline for me is this: The iPad is going to provide a much greater canvas for great design — the kind of great design you can find in magazines, but rarely experience online. The iPad and those devices, large and small, that it will influence, may provide a golden age for great design.* But not unless the great design helps tell a story, provides easy access to both content and context and provides the type of intuitive user experience that first drew the user to the iPad, itself.

*The first generation iPad is not without its own limitations on design, as I discovered upon importing a Keynote presentation: it has only a limited number of native fonts and, like a browser, substitutes fonts. This, of course, replicates rather than fixes one of the browser’s fundamental flaws related to design. Steven Coles breaks down this problem in a post on the blog, The Font Feed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/henshaw Jon Henshaw

    While I like the experimental nature of what PopSci was attempting to do, I too hope that people don't try to emulate it. The standardized mag format for iPad should be focused more on usability and not how abstract they can make it. I think the winner at this point is Time magazine. They had by far the most user friendly and easy to digest iPad magazine to date, and I think they're on the right track. My biggest problem so far with all of the iPad magazines is that their pricing model is outrageous for the medium.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Jon, The crazy pricing is why I won't be reviewing many magazines. The people who run the media companies honestly believe they 'lost' the web because they gave it away free and believe they can somehow “not make that mistake again” by charging $5 an issue. They'd be better off not investing in the platform.

  • http://twitter.com/BoSacks BoSacks

    Rex: I greatly enjoyed your post about Pop Sci. As you might expect I don't agree. Well, not completely.
    Is it the most cutting edge of a new magazine design, presented in a truly new and provocative style? Well no.

    Is it a noble attempt in a new frontier? Here I say, yes. It is innovative and different. It is not a boring clone of a print product but an experiment in design on a touch tablet. Others will stand on the shoulders of Pop Sci, but the parts of their design that worked we will all learn from and the parts that didn't we will learn from too.

    For me I liked the attempt. While some of it was a bit confusing as to navigation, I forgive them. In print your directional compass is basically two directions, forward into the book or backwards. On the new touch screen it is at least four dimensional, do I go up from here or down here, or should I go somewhere else? This is totally new “stuff.”
    The Wall Street Journal is the same way. No two pages seem to navigate the same way. Sometimes you scroll down, and sometimes you scroll sideways. There is no consistent map yet to the tablet process. Right now I love that part of the experience. There is yet no right way to do things. It seems to me that your proposing that there are immediately and apparent wrong ways to do things as in the Pop Sci issue, I must disagree. Was it a home run? Perhaps not. Was it a double with a man on first…yes.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks, Bob.

    I'm glad you liked their first attempt.

    I like that they attempted it. But that's all.

    I think it's pretentious crap that harkens back to really poorly designed CD-ROM from the early 1990s.

    Am I missing something? Apple is meticulous about an intuitive user experience. Do we not agree that Apple sets some sort of high standard for usability. I use iPhone apps that provide more information and clarity in a three inch screen than the PopSc iPad app does with three times the real estate.

    PopSci sacrificed intuitive UX for gimmicks. There's nothing about such an approach that will help anyone who wants to stand on their shoulders.

    They struck out.

    Rex

  • http://twitter.com/BoSacks BoSacks

    Rex: I'm trying to read as many new mags and newspapers on the ipad as I can, and still keep my day job. Wait a minute, reading as many new mags as is possible on the iPad is part of my day job. I have gone through many and I see such tremendous and wonderful potential that I will admit to you and your readers that I am inclined to be very forgiving and very hopeful. If I can combine all that I have seen and experienced so far, I would have to state that I have been very near the future. I can smell it and taste it and I like what I see just ahead.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Bob. If it wasn't clear, let me reiterate: My post was about one app only: Popular Science+. Not about all apps created by companies that also publish magazines.

    I am glad you are having a mountain top experience with what you're seeing.

    I love the iPad. Love the potential. Have written about it for years (but not as a replacement for magazines, but as a platform of media that can be it's own unique form).

    I'll be developing for it on behalf of clients. Can't wait.

    But nothing you nor anyone else can say will make me think anything other than the Popular Science+ is self-absorbed crap that was created by individuals who disregarded the user.

  • shaneguymon

    You never actually state WHAT the problems/issues are. You never give any ACTUAL problems. You tease that your eventually going to get into it, but you never actually do.

    I don't own an iPad and have never tried using it yet, but would love to hear some actual reasons why it fails. Give specifics.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    I'll point to Khoi Vihn's review for some of the specifics. The primary problem is the lack of intuitive clues to help the user navigate the content. Indeed, the navigation is a rebuke to intuitiveness. I concur with the review of the app from engadget that explains some specifics:

    …the primary problem here is a totally unique set of navigation gestures that are unintuitive and oftentimes lead to strange results. Yes, primary navigation is done with swipes — vertical for the next page, horizontal for the next article — but after that it's some really weird stuff, like a two-finger “push” that only works in the lower middle of the display to bring up the contents and issue browser. Tapping on the left side of the display makes all the text invisible so you can see the images more clearly, but it doesn't actually make the images bigger — and if there's no image on the page it just results in a blank white screen. The table of contents page in the magazine isn't clickable, so you can't navigate with it — and if you try to tap on it, there's a good chance you'll hit the left side of the display and it'll disappear entirely. There's no pinch-to-zoom on the photos, and no search of the text.”

    Good user experience is the foundation of good design: in print and online and on the iPad. The creators of this app seemed to go out of their way to turn the content into a jumbled mess.

  • shaneguymon

    Thanks! I wish you would of included that quoted text in your post. That had some very specific and great points. thanks for the response

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    You're right, I should have. I'll be the first to admit that everything I write here includes some bad user experience. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Erik Spooner

    I should preface this because it may be misunderstood, but I think the potential here is jaw-dropping, and as an editorial AD, I think the possibilities here are overwhelming/exciting/etc. That said, I can't agree with you more on Mag+. When Bonnier first put their Mag+ video out for general consumption on the interweb, I was bothered then by something you articulate so well, Rex. In classic Jony Ive knockoff style, a suave hipster industrial designer with a cool Brit accent went on at length about the new experience of reading. But none of the things he talked about actually considered a Reader, someone who already does this all the time, knows how to access information, and has expectations of how they will do it. As you say: “Unfortunately, in their re-imagination, they forgot to consider that readers have been using interactive tools for accessing news, information, features and advertising, for almost 20 years. Users have re-imagined magazines themselves, and the conventions, expectations and intuition they bring to any new type of media should not require a user manual to understand.” Hear, hear. And as a communications designer, and not necessarily an 'experiential visionary', I say let's use the conventions our audiences are so good at establishing on their own. I don't need someone to tell me how people read, and I wish our publishers would stop listening to so-called “experts” who don't understand readers (dare I say, who don't even read themselves) and start listening to the experts they employ in their cadre everyday.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Eric. I used to know a high school kid with the same name as you.

  • Erik Spooner

    I should preface this because it may be misunderstood, but I think the potential here is jaw-dropping, and as an editorial AD, I think the possibilities here are overwhelming/exciting/etc. That said, I can't agree with you more on Mag+. When Bonnier first put their Mag+ video out for general consumption on the interweb, I was bothered then by something you articulate so well, Rex. In classic Jony Ive knockoff style, a suave hipster industrial designer with a cool Brit accent went on at length about the new experience of reading. But none of the things he talked about actually considered a Reader, someone who already does this all the time, knows how to access information, and has expectations of how they will do it. As you say: “Unfortunately, in their re-imagination, they forgot to consider that readers have been using interactive tools for accessing news, information, features and advertising, for almost 20 years. Users have re-imagined magazines themselves, and the conventions, expectations and intuition they bring to any new type of media should not require a user manual to understand.” Hear, hear. And as a communications designer, and not necessarily an 'experiential visionary', I say let's use the conventions our audiences are so good at establishing on their own. I don't need someone to tell me how people read, and I wish our publishers would stop listening to so-called “experts” who don't understand readers (dare I say, who don't even read themselves) and start listening to the experts they employ in their cadre everyday.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Eric. I used to know a high school kid with the same name as you.