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.