Note: Although this essay was originally written when iPad-exclusive apps were all the rage, the lessons I learned about user experience and digital publishing remain contemporary.
When the iPad first came out, millions of people were enamored by it. But very few understood what it was. Many designers who work with clients in the publishing industry (myself included) saw an exciting new medium to explore, albeit through ink-tinted lenses. We should have approached it with the creative sensitivity required to understand a totally new user experience. Instead, we used blunt-force thinking and tried to force the square peg of print design into a round digital hole. When looking at the iPad’s bookish proportions, we saw a communication tool that didn’t require printing. It allowed for crisp, high-resolution layout and invited immersive interaction. A gold rush ensued, as magazines and newspapers scrambled to get their content onto the iPad. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the term “game-changer” in early 2010, I’d be writing this article from the porch of my second beach home.
Designers who were invested in their clients’ success saw a brilliant means of helping them recover dwindling audiences. We were right about the iPad’s potential, but wrong about how to create reader interfaces. Thankfully, we’re still in the formative days of tablets, and some of us have already learned from our mistakes.
Time and Wired were the first big titles to create versions tailored for the iPad. There are a number of off-the-shelf digital publishing tools these days, but Woodwing came first (used by Time), followed closely by Adobe (launched privately with Wired and made available to the public shortly thereafter). In short order, other titles from Time Inc., Condé Nast, and Hearst went digital. Both Woodwing’s and Adobe’s tools were built around the idea of creating gorgeous, expressive layouts in InDesign. Interactive features could be built in InDesign via plugins. No coding required. Woodwing and Adobe have since partnered on a hybrid publishing solution, and Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) now ships as a standard feature in InDesign. The cloud-based file-hosting and publishing systems can cost from several hundred dollars to upwards of six figures, depending on the size of your organization. But they’re a bargain compared with the ongoing cost to produce print editions.
The promise of these tools was understandably alluring to publishers and their designers: Produce the content once, and publish instantly across multiple channels. Digital editions could be designed by existing staff, using tools they already knew like the backs of their hands. On paper, it seemed like a beautiful idea.
I’ve encountered two major problems with these systems.
First: It has cost the publishing industry many millions of dollars for design work that was largely superfluous. It’s an extremely inefficient way to produce visual content for people who publish on a regular basis. Who knows how many of those hours could have been spent on projects with demand that actually matched supply. And while demand for walled-garden content on tablet showed a small spike from early adopters, it fizzled, and then climbed slowly through 2011 and 2012. It has yet to match the effort and cost required to create one of these apps.
According to an April 2012 article from Adweek, digital edition sales made up for less than 1% of total circulation in the second half of 2011. This doesn’t count publishers who bundle their iPad edition for free alongside paid print subscriptions. Only a handful of publishers – The Economist, Popular Science, ESPN The Magazine, National Geographic, and Game Informer – are seeing profitable percentages. For many publishers, that’s not nearly enough to cover rising design costs, unless they treat existing staff like sweatshop labor who should be thankful for the opportunity to work in a new medium.
Speaking from personal experience, designing a magazine or newspaper twice – thrice, when you count the many titles that allow for horizontal as well as vertical reading – has proven to be heavy on labor for designers and light on profit for clients. Not only do we need to produce layouts for print and two digital orientations, but more often than not we’re adding digital extras like video, enhanced slideshows, interactive information graphics, and the like. In many cases the amount of time spent designing layouts has doubled for publishers who already produced print editions. For publications that hired design firms for ongoing digital magazine design – beyond an original design and set of templates for in-house staff to follow – this has in some cases meant a doubling of cost as well as time.
I have no interest in making a pile of money if the project isn’t profitable for my client as well.
After Wired was launched at Condé Nast, they decided to bring nearly all of their other titles to the iPad and other tablets. According to a New York Observer article from July 2011, the one teensy wrinkle was that no dedicated iPad design hires would be made. The result was that existing creative staff traded their precious slow weeks between issues – time they had long used to recuperate and recharge creative batteries in the wake of deadlines – in order to work nights and weekends on digital magazine pages.
I don’t know any designers at Condé Nast, but that sounds like a recipe for exhaustion and disillusionment. According to the above-mentioned Observer article, art director Anton Ioukhnovets, a seven-year veteran at GQ, left the magazine in September 2010 for reasons unrelated to the forthcoming digital edition. However, he spotted the impending train wreck a mile off: “I saw it coming, and I was not interested. I didn’t want to do two jobs for the price of one.”
The second major flaw is in the user experience. I’m not the first designer to offer a bearish take on the print-centric way of creating digital editions. Khoi Vinh, former NYTimes.com design director, founder of Mixel, and prolific blogger at Subtraction.com, has been preaching this sermon for a couple years now. But I might be among the first designers from a print background who had stars in their eyes at first, and have since repented.
In recent years, more clients have come to me for interactive work. I can now say with confidence that I possess a good understanding of user experience and digital interface design. I couldn’t say that in 2010, when we partnered with World Magazine to create their digital edition. We learned on the job. In the course of 13 months my team designed some beautiful digital issues, some of which both the client and I are still proud. But in the midst of all that work we began to realize there was a better way to serve publishers like World.
The file sizes of these digital magazines are horrendous, often weighing in at a portly half-gigabyte or more. They’ve only grown with the higher-resolution iPad 3. Pages are rendered as images or high-resolution PDFs. In some cases, you could run out to your local newsstand and buy an analog copy in the time it takes to download the digital version.
We also began to understand that the way people read digital content is not like the linear way one reads print. Digital attempts at replicating the experience of flipping through pages have been unwieldy and inflexible thus far. Scrolling on digital devices is a natural way to read. Your tablet audience resonates with long-form content, but only if it’s presented in a way that’s simple, lightweight, shareable. Make it unidirectionally navigable. Don’t throw every bell and whistle under the sun at your readers. Instead, focus your resources on creating content specifically for your app, that can’t be found anywhere else.
Add value, don’t replicate it. And if you need to draw a map to show people how to get from A to B, your design is broken.
Now, I do enjoy reading Wired and a few other magazines on my iPad. I geek out over their inventive photography, illustration, and weird, wonderful typography. It doesn’t take up space on my bookshelves or in the recycling bin. The download time isn’t a big hassle for me; it’s more of a mild nuisance. But I’m not the average reader. And as soon as they create something more digital-friendly that’s just as aesthetically inviting, I’ll spring for it.
The best digital publications aren’t facsimiles of their print counterparts. They are apps that were designed to deliver content to tablets in the best way possible. They have more in common with websites than magazines or books. First of all, they only have to be designed once. I repeat: Once. You do the math. Sure, there may be the occasional interactive feature that will need some amount of custom design. But by and large, the content is flowed in from a web-based content management system. Think WordPress or any other blogging platform that doesn’t require technical expertise to add content. Very little if any ongoing design support is required. An intern could populate and publish each issue (as an aside, thinking of content in terms of “issues” might fall by the wayside rather quickly).
The Guardian is an excellent example of a thoughtfully designed, engaging, intuitive app. And from typography to color, it feels like a natural extension of their brand. Bloomberg Businessweek+ is right up there with it, especially given their highly intuitive mobile version. The key here is that both of these apps were designed and built once. Others such The Financial Times are merely tablet-customized versions of websites. FT completely circumnavigates the App Store. You can simply pull an app icon from Safari, which is made clear on the homepage. Creating a paywall under this model makes great sense for a lot of publishers, as long as they haven’t already decided to give away their online content.
I’ll concede that occasionally, using Adobe’s DPS makes sense. One-offs like annual reports, product catalogs, or image- and diagram-rich textbooks might be a good fit. One could also make the case for using DPS to create iPad-only magazines, at least from a cost vs. revenue perspective. At any rate, I am no longer recommending such tools for clients who wish to publish content regularly across multiple platforms.
Designers: Let’s stop giving clients reasons to see our work as a sunk cost, when it should be a powerful investment. Let’s insist on digital strategies that will help our clients grow.
Clients: Hire someone to design your app in such a way that once it’s done, they can walk away, watch it grow, and apply their skills to other projects. Don’t hire them (or your existing staff) to design every single issue three times. Understand the medium. Respect your readers.
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