The Ins and Outs of iPad Apps
Here’s how top news outlets are presenting material on the popular tablet device. Posted: Thu, March 3, 2011
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
Long before we have answers to the big questions about the impact of tablet devices on news consumption and profitability, media companies face the immediate task of determining how to present their content on this new platform. As the first wave of news iPad apps demonstrates, the tablet app format warrants a set of standards and practices of its own.
Here is an overview of emerging best practices among the iPad apps of traditional daily news organizations that ranked in the Apple App Store's top 20 free news apps as of mid-January. The apps include those of CNN, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, ABC News, CBS News, the Washington Post and BBC News. While the iPad is not the only tablet device out there, and there is an ongoing debate about whether apps or next-generation mobile Web sites will win the day, those are topics for another time.
This article will focus on best practices, not worst practices, for two main reasons: First, many of these apps are evolving so quickly that today's flaws could be erased with tomorrow's update. Second, criticism feels a little cheap at this stage of the game. The news organizations that are pioneering this space and providing lessons for others don't deserve to be judged for early missteps.
There are two ways to charge iPad users: A fee to download the app, or a fee for the content itself. Among news companies that charge for content, most have opted to make the app itself available for free, along with partial content access or a temporary free pass. The Wall Street Journal's app provides free access to many news stories of the day, but requires a monthly subscription to access full content and a downloadable seven-day archive. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times iPad apps offered free, full access at the time of this review, but both had announced plans to restrict access for nonsubscribers in early 2011.
By offering the app download for free, these companies have put out the welcome mat for new and curious consumers. There's already a higher barrier to sampling app content than Web content, since the user needs to deliberately seek out and download the app. Charging a fee at the front door could turn away casual testers who might convert to subscribers down the road. Even those who never subscribe can supply valuable behavioral insights and advertising impressions.
Exceptions include CBS' "60 Minutes," the New York Post and New York's Daily News, which in mid-January ranked number one, two and three among the App Store's paid news apps. Both the New York Post and the Daily News offer a 30-day trial period with the initial $1.99 download fee. After the trial, users must purchase a subscription. The "60 Minutes" app costs $4.99 to download, but content is free. This payment-up-front strategy is legitimate in its own right, especially for publishers with strong brands, unique content and a loyal audience. No other traditional news brands rank anywhere near the App Store's top 20 paid news apps; the category seems to be dominated by news readers and aggregators charging a small one-time fee.
Layout & Navigation
Beginning with the default entry page, we can see that newspaper apps tend to look like newspapers. This is true of all four newspaper apps reviewed. They all have the hierarchical story prioritization, column layout and stylistic look of newspaper front pages. The top of USA Today's app even mimics the zig-zag edge of a sheet of newsprint. Though not ground-breaking, the familiar newspaper layout may be a safe starting point.
Because there is no concept of a "page" in broadcasting's native format, TV and radio apps tend to experiment more with layout. All of the broadcast apps reviewed put more emphasis on multimedia, in varying degrees. The front pages of the CNN and CBS News apps are the most graphics-centric, composed completely of large and small thumbnail images with headlines and no other text. CNN offers an alternate view with headlines only. NPR's app is similar in its reliance on images to promote stories, but with slightly more text. The BBC's app is more moderate, using image thumbnails for navigation but also exposing the text of the current top story.
ABC News might have the most recognizable start page of all, a spinning globe of stories that was heavily promoted when the app launched in spring 2010. The globe is a brilliant device for driving initial interest. For users who then conclude it's not the most efficient way to browse news, ABC provides a traditional, hierarchical front page view. Offering both experimental and traditional interfaces may broaden an app's appeal among different types of users. (Disclosure: My employer owns four local ABC affiliates.)
Drilling down into the content, one noticeable difference emerges in site navigation: While all apps have some concept of sections or categories, not all of them make it easy to move from one section to another. With the Wall Street Journal, NPR, ABC, Washington Post and BBC apps, section-level navigation is clearly visible on every page, so that if a user is viewing a story in one section, he or she can easily jump to another section. On some apps, the user must backtrack out of a story in order to visit another section.
Another difference surfaces in navigation within and between stories. The most popular approach among the apps reviewed is to scroll vertically to read a long story, and swipe horizontally to move to the next story in the section. Either option is one gesture away. This is how the CNN, USA Today, NPR, Washington Post and BBC apps behave. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and ABC apps use horizontal swiping to move through multiple-page stories. When the user reaches the end of a story, the next horizontal swipe either serves up the next story in the section (the Wall Street Journal and ABC) or does nothing (the New York Times). The CBS app scrolls vertically through stories but doesn't offer a transition to the next story.
While some of these differences are small, there usually is a more efficient and less efficient way to do things -- and, over time, users may become more aware of that fact. They may also become increasingly frustrated by the lack of consistency between apps, and the constant low-level disorientation that results. The coming months or years will likely produce standards in some of these basic behaviors.
A final note on usability: Even though using an app should be intuitive, it's nice to provide users with a little "how-to" or FAQ. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post do a great job of this.
One of the pleasant things about news apps is that they lack the clutter that's overtaken many Web sites. Apps feel more cleanly designed and controlled. But the clutter of Web sites contains a lot of clues to the freshness and immediacy of the content. If designers aren't careful to include similar clues in app design, apps could end up looking not just clean but static.
It's a given that app content should be as current as Web content. Outdated information is a non-starter. All of the apps reviewed have frequently updated content. Here's how some of them communicate that fact to users:
At the time of this review, the New York Times' app was the only one that included timestamps for individual stories on the front page and section fronts of the app, though only a publish date was given on the story pages. Most other apps, including CNN, USA Today, ABC, CBS and the BBC, offered up-to-the-minute timestamps at the top of each story though not on the front page or section fronts. Only a few apps provided publish dates without specific times.
The Wall Street Journal app offers the option of browsing either the most recent edition of the printed paper, or a page called the "Now" page, which includes more recently published content. Paying subscribers can also access printed editions from the past seven days.
CNN and ABC reinforce the promise of immediacy by showing a "Video" button at the top of their apps. The button is inactive when there is no live video stream, so that when breaking news occurs users might remember to check the apps.
While tablets like the iPad are expected to have Internet access, they aren't connected all the time. Even iPads with built-in wireless connectivity may be disconnected on airplanes, the subway or just to save batteries.
Most of the apps reviewed do allow users to access offline content one way or another. With its seven-day archive, the Wall Street Journal probably offers the most extensive offline access for subscribers. For nonsubscribers, most of the Journal's text stories are saved for offline access; the same is true of the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, the Washington Post and the BBC. While video and some images may not be available, offline access to text content appears to be a standard practice.
Somewhat related is a handy "Save" feature currently offered by the Post, the Journal, CNN, ABC and CBS, which allows users to tag specific articles to read later. This feature is even more handy when those articles are available offline.
The inclusion of multimedia -- mostly video and slideshows -- is standard practice among news iPad apps.
Most of the newspaper apps excel at photo slideshows, a feature carried over from their Web sites. The New York Times and the Washington Post boast stand-alone sections full of beautiful photo galleries. Both handle video nicely as well, as do the broadcasters, for whom video is clearly a top priority. Only a couple of apps did not offer the option to view media in full-screen mode.
When it comes to content integration, the Wall Street Journal is particularly effective at embedding multiple video clips and images inside related stories, so that users can access that content in-line or full screen without leaving the story. Most of the newspaper apps offer embedded home page video when appropriate, and of course the TV apps promote video prominently throughout.
Among today's top news iPad apps, advertising abounds. While formats may differ -- from bottom-of-the-screen banners to in-story ads to full-screen ads that appear in the transition between pages -- there are a couple of consistent themes. One is the limited number of advertisers per app. Another is that, while the ad formats may be large, there is seldom if ever more than one ad per page. As a result, the advertisers seem more memorable and the ads
It's too soon to know whether these trends will continue, or whether this is just a fleeting moment in which advertisers are willing to pay premium rates to "own" an app, and the media companies haven't yet started carving out extra spaces to accommodate extra ads.
The coming months and years will produce more formal reviews and usability studies about tablet app design. Hopefully, some of the basic navigational disparities we see in today's apps will consolidate into standards, while still leaving room for creative design.
News managers who plan to launch iPad apps in the near future can get no better insight into what works and what doesn't than to spend time with the apps that are already out there. After a few days of frequent use, one discovers real differences in usability and convenience that might not be evident at first glance.
Unlike the interconnected Web, serendipity does not help users stumble upon apps over and over again. Downloading and testing an app is a conscious, deliberate effort. Each user's first impression should be a great one.