On Magazines and the iPad

Reading magazines on the iPad is an exercise in frustration. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As great a device and, more importantly, platform as Apple has created, magazine publishers have done nothing short of fumble the snap in their own end zone.

I read a lot of magazines. They are great for people with short attention spans like myself, available on a variety of diverse topics and are usually pretty well designed. On paper that is. On the iPad? I wish I never learned to read.

I’m convinced that the people who actually write for magazines, edit them and publish them have never actually tried using their iPad versions for more than a few moments. If they actually did try to use their publication’s app as the actual means to read each issue, things would have to improve. Right? RIGHT?!

There is so much wrong with these magazines that I could write a 5000 word cover story on it. For the sake of brevity, let’s just focus on the actual process of procuring issues of a magazine. We’ll cover the reading experience next time. Sound good? Let’s do it.

GQ

GQ was one of the first magazines to be updated to support Apple’s Newsstand Kit framework in iOS 5. Newsstand Kit is great because it aggregates each newspaper and magazine app into a single folder on the device. More importantly, it automatically downloads new issues in the background without any intervention on your part.

It’s all downhill from there.

The first thing you see when you launch the app is a giant splash screen with the GQ and Condé Nast logos for a full 5 seconds.

Remember, kids. The first rule of mobile development is that no one gives a fuck about your brand. A splash screen with a giant logo is something that makes editors and marketing directors feel good, but to a user it just feels like a meaningless delay. You know that feeling of frustration you get each time there’s a 15-second preroll before a video on the web? That’s what a splash screen with logos and advertisements is.

The issue list for GQ isn’t terrible. The biggest source of frustration is the giant SUBSCRIBE NOW image at the top of the view that I have yet to figure out how to get rid of. Even though I have subscribed through the App Store, GQ still wants to harass me to sign up for an account or a paper subscription. Just leave me alone and be happy you have my monthly fee!

Downloading issues is slow. Very slow. Let’s say you want to queue up a few issues on your device before a trip. You tap “Buy” or “Download” on three issues, enter your iTunes password and one starts downloading. Just one. The concept of parallel downloads doesn’t exist at the Condé Nast offices.

Moreover, don’t bother trying to push the app in the background because the download will stop. Instead you have to sit and watch the little blue progress indicator move from left to right slowly. And once it’s done, you can start downloading the next issue. The concept of a download queue is also foreign to these people.

OK. I just finished downloading the latest issue of GQ and Jay-Z is on the cover. Hova, don’t fail me now. I tap “View” and wait for the issue to load. It’s taking a little longer than I expected on my super-fast A5 powered iPad 2, so I tap the button again. Oh wait, the issue loaded!

I saw the cover for about half a second and then was pushed off to some random article because the GQ app determined that secondary tap meant I wanted to view that specific article on the cover. Sometimes that may be the case, and that’s a nice feature, but it sucks when there’s a non-responsive delay in an app.

Fuck it. Let’s read something else.

Esquire

Another one of my favorite print magazines that is available in Newsstand! Let’s summarize the sins Esquire commits that we already saw in GQ:

  1. One-by-one downloading of issues.
  2. A lack of responsiveness when tapping the tiny “Tap To Download” button.
  3. A giant “Subscribe And Save” banner at the top of the app EVEN THOUGH I SUBSCRIBE THROUGH ITUNES.

To Esquire’s credit, downloading an issue continues when the app is put in the background.

Deleting issues from the issue list is ridiculously awkward. At the bottom of the Library tab is tiny text explaining how to do it. Just tap and hold on a cover and then tap delete. OK. Easy enough. Except many times I tap and hold and get nothing. I tap and hold again and there the magical delete button just appears. No animation. No delighting the user with the details. Just a weirdly drawn, red delete button with a white stroke around it.

Oh wait! I tapped the wrong issue. I don’t really want to delete it. How do I hide that red delete button? On most iOS apps there is an Edit/Done button that you can tap to enter or exit an editing mode. Not in Esquire. Just tap the issue anywhere other than the actual delete button. Because that’s intuitive.

Switch over to the Store tab and start scrolling through the previous issues scroll view. Boy, that sure feels smooth as butter.1 I’ve seen better scrolling on a Honeycomb tablet. There’s no elastic scrolling. There’s no natural stop points for selecting a specific issue. And those Download and Details buttons are ridiculously small tap targets. Either Esquire’s quality assurance team has tiny hands or they have yet to reach puberty and had their growth spurt.

The final sin? Push notifications. Never, ever ever ever send me a push notification with advertisements. Before I subscribed to Esquire, I still had the app on my iPad and received a push notification letting me know that the latest issue was available for sale. Way to shit in the pool, Esquire. I can’t think of a legitimate use for push notifications for a magazine, short of letting me know there was a problem finishing off a download.2

It should also be noted that as I was trying to re-download an issue of Esquire because every time I tried to read it, the app would crash I was asked if I’d like to rate their app on the App Store. I REALLY DON’T THINK YOU WANT ME TO DO THAT.

Sports Illustrated

Who breaks my heart the most? Sports Illustrated. I’ve been an SI subscriber since I discovered the glorious world of sports. I absolutely adore the writing in SI. I absolutely abhor the iPad experience that my favorite print magazine offers. There is no worse magazine experience on the iPad presently.

Here’s a prime example:

I just launched the SI app and it pulled up the latest issue I downloaded and showed me the cover. Great. I’d like to see if there’s a new issue to download, however. So I tap the cover to try and expose the hidden (and hideously customized) tab-bar along the bottom. But it won’t show up. No matter how often or how hard I tap the bar will not appear.

The only way for me to get back to the library or store views is to close the app, relaunch it and hit that Store tab as quickly as I can before it hides again. Awesome.

OK, so we are in the Library tab. There’s a full listing of every issue I have access to. In my case there are well over a years worth of issues. Those that aren’t downloaded have faded out covers. Those that are cached locally have bright, full color covers.

Let’s say I want to download this week’s issue. Since Sports Illustrated isn’t in Newsstand, this is a manual process (and it’s cluttering up my iPad by being the lone jerk not in Newsstand. Thanks, Time Warner.). I tap on the little download button and the download starts. Here’s where we meet some of the same issues we already saw in GQ and Esquire:

  1. There’s no concept of concurrent downloads.
  2. There’s no concept of queuing up issues to download so that once one finishes another starts up automatically.
  3. Putting the app in the background closing my smart cover stops all current downloads.
  4. Deleting issues is a clusterfuck.

I want to put extra focus on the deleting of issues because it’s possibly weirder than any other app I have encountered. To SI’s credit there is an Edit button in the upper-right corner. Tapping it makes tiny gray “X” icons in the upper-left corner of each issue. They don’t gracefully fade in. They just appear. SPLAT. Delightful.3

Tapping on one of the buttons should delete an issue. Except there’s a ridiculously long, non-responsive delay so you’re not sure if an issue is actually being deleted or not. Oh wait! It is because the cover disappeared entirely and then re-appeared as a non-downloaded version.

Scrolling the library is poorly done. There’s general lagginess and chunky scrolling, but there’s also some cell reuse issues. Sometimes covers will redraw on the wrong cell so it will look like an issue from 6 weeks ago is downloading even though you’re really downloading last weeks. Scrolling the cells off-screen and back on again resolves that rendering bug.

OK. Enough of that. Let’s load the Sports Illustrated “Store” tab.

Hey, look! A giant “SUBSCRIBE” and “SIGN IN” banner. In this case I actually am signed in because I have a print subscription to SI still. WHY IS THIS GIANT BANNER STILL SHOWING UP I SIGNED IN!?

Whatever. Tap on “Preview Issue” and there’s not really much response to the tap action, but a giant view just appears in front of you. Text is tiny and poorly laid out, but it at least gives you an idea of what the issue has inside it. And there in the right corner is our friend the round, black X to close it. Someone introduce SI to the UINavigationController.

OK, Jerk. How would you fix this stuff?

Maybe I am too analytical and critical of these apps because I build software for a living. As critical as I am, I doubt there’s anyone who uses these apps and genuinely enjoys the experience. I haven’t even touched on the reading experience yet it already makes me regret trying to replace my paper susbcriptions!

In the case of procuring new issues of a magazine here’s what every single publisher should be doing:

  1. Use Newsstand Kit. Do not put onus on the user to manually download the latest issue.
  2. Support concurrent downloading of issues. Sometimes we want to back-fill. Let me download multiple things at once. iTunes does. You can too.
  3. Support queued downloading. Don’t make me manually track when one download finishes so another one starts.
  4. Support backgrounding! I shouldn’t have to leave the app open just to finish downloading an issue. I’ve got other things to do besides watch your magazine’s progress indicator.
  5. If I subscribe through iTunes, don’t try to sell me a print subscription or to sign up for an account on your site. You may want to have a “relationship” with me, but I just want to read your content. I’ve already paid for that privilege. Just leave me alone.
  6. Fix your performance. Scrolling should not be laggy. Taps should always be responsive. If your magazine isn’t as enjoyable to read as Flipboard it sucks.
  7. Fix your performance even more. You probably think you fixed it. Trust me, it still sucks. Back to Instruments you go!
  8. Stop building custom buttons just for the sake of custom buttons. There are edit and delete buttons that users recognize in iOS. Use them. And stop recreating interface components like tab bars and navigation controllers that don’t work as well as the standard iOS ones. I’m sure we can blame Adobe or some other third-party component maker for this sin, but it’s got to end.
  9. Just because your physical issues are laid out in a grid on physical newsstands doesn’t mean your iPad issue listings need to be. I actually like the GQ and New Yorker layout whereas the Sports Illustrated and Esquire cover-heavy versions leave much to be desired. The iPad is a great opportunity to reach beyond traditional paradigms. Explore them and see what works.
  10. Back up a dump truck of money to my house and pay me to fix this stuff. Am I not your cup of tea? That’s fine. Hire someone that knows and understands Apple’s platforms and how to build great experiences for them. You may want to have a universal experience across all tablet platforms, but your iPad customers (who are the overwhelming majority by the way) don’t care about that. They want an app that looks good, feels good and has great performance. You are 0/3, but don’t have to be.

The iPad is a device that should disappear in your hands. I’m hoping one day I can read a magazine on it and forget that I’m actually reading it on an iPad. Next time, I’ll tell you everything wrong with the actual reading experience of these magazines.

Don’t miss my follow-up post on what users expect from publishers’ apps

  1. Sarcasm.

  2. By comparison, the excellent Instacast HD uses push notifications to let me know when new episodes of my subscribed shows are available, when downloads have halted because I haven’t launched the app in ten minutes and when downloads are finished. This doesn’t bother me because it’s not something that is going to cost me money.

  3. More sarcasm.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear, makers of Glassboard. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.