An app, or not

THE New York Times released an HTML edition for the iPad this week, without much fanfare. Of course, the HTML crowd was enthusiastic. Mediabistro (not as breathless as the clipped headline on Google News indicated—“The New York Times’ New iPad Website Could Mean End of Apple. . . .”) wondered if this meant that the paper would phase out its iOS apps.

This HTML app takes it place beside the daily paper, the web site, the iPad app, and mobile apps for iPhone and Android. They share design elements, but there are interesting, sometimes annoying differences. I use all of them, and am as any critical as any reader who started reading the paper in the days when the logo had a period, when many of my friends preferred the Herald-Tribune. I bow to long-time readers as the ultimate judges of publication design, and I qualify as a sharp critic as a subscriber to The Times for nearly 50 years. Plus, I spent four years at the paper in the early 80s.

TImes web app home page
The Times’s new web app home page
The Times iPad app home page
The iPad app home page

In printed publications, a brand is made from the written voice, the editorial perspective and the visual personality of the pages, including the type. As a typographer I’ve always felt that the core element is the body type, and my job as a designer is to make a publication easy to read. In the case of The Times, Lou Silverstein chose the Intertype font, Imperial, while he was still promotion art director. It never occurred to me to change it, since it printed as well as anything on their ancient letterpresses and cheap paper. By then, Imperial was The Times, at the reading level.

In the digital arena, a reader’s direct relationship of the brand is similar to print, and the body type is a readers direct connection to the content. Of course on the web you didn’t get much choice of fonts until recently, and The Times picked Georgia, when Microsoft introduce it with the web “core set” in 1996. The same typeface was used on The Times  iPhone app, and then the iPad app, and it seemed that Georgia, too, was The Times—until the Android came out, and they had to substitute Droid Serif. Whatever you think of Droid Serif, it is not The Times.

There is an additional branding component: user interface design, UI, or user experience design. (I reject the UX term on the grounds, as I have said before, because if design is not about user experience, then what the hell is it?)

So while the designers can strap together cross-platform products like the newspaper, the web site and the apps, the UI is going to be different due to constraints of the OS and the devices—and different definitions of the products.

This new product is more like the mobile apps than their native iPad app. It has a one-column layout with scrolling stories, which I hate since I always lose my place. There are UI experts like Oliver Reichenstein who swear by scrolling. Nevertheless with scrolling you can’t do multiple-columns without enraging even Reichenstein. This new web app sidesteps that issue. When you turn the iPad to landscape view, there’s enough room for another column, but the app fills moves the story index to a sidebar, and starts the first story in the remaining space. There should be an iPad law:

Content in landscape view = content in portrait view.

These landscape section fronts look cluttered, particularly if there is an ad. The landscape story pages get crowded with an ad, sidebar on the left, and vertical chrome on the right. The web app begins to look like, uh, a web site.

Web app landscape section front
The section front portrait, and landscape

Worse, it places ads at the top of stories, not just the section fronts. It’s like the whole news report was written by . . . Lincoln. (And that is one ugly grill on that car.) In the old days of church-and-state, this would never happen. (I’m lighting a candle for the late Punch Sulzberger.) It’s even worse than the the two-column iPad pages I complain about it, where you see ads at the top of a page—next to a picture.

It’s a relief when you get to a full-page ad, which you can swipe past. Sadly, it’s the same Lincoln, and the same ad, page after page.

Full page ad
A full-page ad

Ignoring that car, let’s start reading. You can swipe sideways to get to a new story. To get to a new section front you tap on a little grid icon that you find in the side chrome. (The Times is consistent across platforms with icons.) A list opens on the right side. On the iPad app, you tap the screen to reveal the chrome at the bottom, hit the grid icon, and get a section list—on the left side of the screen. Hmmm. The web app sections are one-column lists; to get to the next sections you swipe horizontally. On the iPad you swipe vertically to get to the new sections.

Did the designers imagine that readers would use just one of their products? You can argue about the mobile style here versus the ebook-like approach to the native app. But here’s another universal truth that they missed:

UI = your brand.

Readers (customers) move across platforms. I pick up TThe Times on desktop, mobile and tablet. I can’t be the only one who expects that the interface that I learned on one should be useful on the next one.

Let’s back up for a minute.

Ten years after I left The Times, it became an early entrant on the content web, and has since made steady improvements, including the gratifying success with the paywall. It’s worth a spot check of the Way Back Machine  to see how they’ve moved the ball down the court. The site continued to change as screens got bigger and content more complicated. The last big redesign was done with the help of Razorfish in 2006. The work is often credited to Khoi Vinh, but he arrived at the end of the project. Some say that the final result was produced more in-house that with the outside agency. The design added more structure, smaller display type, and more items on the home page and section fronts. While it has been tweaked by Vinh and his successor, Ian Adelman, it’s remarkable that it has not needed to change more. The mark of a good design.

With the authority, scope and range of The Times, became the most important news site in the world, yet many in the newsroom were not satisfied because of the tension between newspaper values and web values. The design differences point out the conflict. The layout of the print product is able to show the editors’ priorities. There are nuances of presentation according to importance and tone of each story.

The web site seems the same every day, and by the time you see it, the moment-in-time of the last night’s “close,” has passed. So the breaking news headline . . . is gone.  Frequency and currency trump perspective and background on the web. It’s more a matter of “this just in” than “you gotta read this article.”

The day after the first Presidential debate, the paper ran a five-column headline in Cheltenham Bold Italic. This signaled it was an important story, but not earth-shattering news. On that kind of day, the type is bigger, and Roman caps, not Italic upper and lower.

On the site, you lose those priorities and nuances, and the same with the iPad app. The home pages on the mobile apps—and this new HTML app—are little more than story list. (For a number of news web sites, I’ve designed alternate “big news” home pages, but they always forget to use them.) Every home page looks much like the last one. And very story—news, opinion or long feature—looks alike.

I have a different experience with each product. If I happen to pick up a printed newspaper after I’ve “finished” reading the paper on the iPad, I find things I missed. And I enjoy the the section fronts, find features inside that I didn’t see. Among other things, information graphics are still not translated very well into the digital targets. What I am looking for is a richer, more satisfying experience. This HTML app moved the wrong way.

So,  a web site is not a newspaper, and an iPhone app is not a web site, and an iPad app is not an iPhone app. (Neither is an Android app, but that is another kind of problem.)

On one level, you don’t even want to read a web site the way you read a paper. Half the time you are “parachuting in” from a link, and never care about the home page. And how often do you actually read to the end of any story on the web? The publisher’s efforts to inflict page views on their readers drives them away. The anecdotal statistic is that a story loses half of its readers on every page jump.

Web sites are great for browsing headlines, finding facts, sourcing data and making transactions. Long-form reading? Not quite there. Out of habit, due to the development history, and as a result of the design—we just don’t expect to read on a web site. E-books and particularly the Kindle, showed an alternative digital format, made for reading, but few web site designers took note.

I think the apps miss something by not bringing people to stories via links. At Sporting News you can share a link in the iPad app that sends people to the Treesaver edition on the web. The analytics show that people tend to read all the way through these stories—and then go on to look at more of the publication. It’s like giving a friend a magazine folded to the story you want to share, rather handing them a clipping. (And they might even see an ad.)

In the double-0 decade, Microsoft, like Sony and others, experimented with e-books and related devices like tablet PCs—focusing on reading. Six years ago, before the whole smartphone thing took off, Microsoft persuaded TThe Times to build “The New York Times Reader” (which I helped design, as mentioned in previous posts). The idea was to make a digital edition that was as easy to read and just as immersive as print. The company had spent some time on the body type issue, and had come up with ClearType, a sharper font rendering scheme, to improve screen readability. The home page on the Reader was more like a front page than a home page, and content was divided into pages that advanced horizontally by clicking a button, like a Kindle. It was a Windows app. It used Imperial for text, and Cheltenham for headlines, like the paper. Sadly, it never caught on.

While the Reader adapted to different screen sizes, it only worked on Windows. A scratchy, bulky Macintosh version was made in Silverlight, but it didn’t catch on either. (I think it was a PNG-flipper, a horrible precursor of the Adobe Digital Suite.) Then Adobe came to the newspaper and offered to rebuild it in Flash, or Air, so it could work on both Macs and PCs, and The Times said, “Sure.” But that also didn’t catch on, internally or among readers, although you can still download it from The Times.

Nevertheless, the project made a big impact on my thinking, and lead to Treesaver, which is the Reader concept turned into an HTML app, and designed to be responsive so it fits on all screen sizes.

The Times did launch an HTML effort two years ago, which no one mentioned in the news about this new app. It’s called “The Skimmer.” As a freestanding web app, just called “NYTimes,” the Skimmer was distributed through the Chrome Web Store, and still is.

The Skimmer doesn’t have the printy feel of the Reader, but it has right fonts, and it’s responsive—up to a point. You can resize windows on a laptop, it works fine on an iPad, but this web app fails on the iPhone. It just goes blank.

The new app, too, is not fully responsive. Right now its restricted to the iPad. I can’t guess why. You get a an error message when you try it on an iPhone, “Sorry — to log in or install this app, you must be on an iPad® running iOS 5.0 or later.” Never mind that you might be running iOS 6.0 on the iPhone.

So now the Great Gray Lady has added one more target for its distribution system.  One asks,  what are they up to?  Most news organizations don’t have enough developers to keep up with the updates for just one of these clients. The Times has over 100 coders. They’re managing the iOS apps, Android 2, 3, and 4 apps, plus the Kindle and Nook versions, and the huge web site including these web apps and the cool Opinion section which, while not responsive, actually looks different, and more elegant than the news sections.

This big tech staff built their own CMS. I have no idea how it connects to the printed paper, but it does manage the content feed to all these targets with consistency and zero down-time. If you compare the home pages of all the apps, they are running the same headlines in Cheltenham.

With designers as good as Adelman and Tom Bodkin, the AME for design, we can expect more products and more design improvements. Their challenge is to unify the UI, and to design distinctive templates that respect the differences between news,  opinion, and feature stories. If, among the big publishers, The New York Times can’t find a way to bring ab immersive reading experience—and the fun of looking at newspaper—to all these targets, then I don’t know who can.