We Just Want to Read

Jeremy W. Peters wrote an article for The New York Times, stating that the reason The New Yorker is more successful on the iPad than its sister publications (such as Wired) is because The New Yorker app has a more simple design:

Magazines are still in the early stages of app experimentation, and the number of buyers is small in the context of The New Yorker’s one million print subscribers. But the figures are the highest of any iPad edition sold by Condé Nast, which also publishes Wired, GQ, Vanity Fair, Glamour and others on the Apple tablet. […]

The New Yorker, a magazine that has always been heavy on text, took a different tack from its peers. Instead of loading its iPad app with interactive features, the magazine focused on presenting its articles in a clean, readable format.

Via Khoi Vinh, who adds:

In short, the best way to serve a reading audience is to focus on providing a terrific reading experience and to de-emphasize the showy, buggy and difficult-to-use extras that have become synonymous with the ‘iPad magazine app’ format.

I am still convinced that magazine publishers see the iPad as an unstable market, and, as John Gruber put it, they believe the print edition is the “real” version of the magazine. Which means they’re not willing to take risks on the iPad and therefore end result of their product is an over-designed, bloated magazine app. But the publishers have to do it that way because they’re afraid that if they don’t ship an app that “looks just like the magazine” then the consumer’s perceived value of the app will drop and nobody will buy the app anymore.

It’s no secret that the publishing industry is struggling to stay profitable as things switch to digital. But building a digital business that leans heavily on the old-and-dying value of the physical printed publication is not the way forward.

Here are my considerations for moving digital magazines forward.

  • Focus on usability over eye candy. Make it as easy and wonderful as possible for your readership to use and read your publication.

  • Value attention over subscriptions. This requires making qualitative value judgment in place of a quantitative result. But what’s more important than people buying your app is people actually reading it. How many people are subscribers to The New Yorker iPad app that don’t actually read for whatever reason? If the app were easier to use and quicker to access, then you’d have users, not just subscribers. And users tell their friends about the recent article they read; users read the app in front of their co-workers during lunch break; users actually get invested in the app. If you can garner the attention of your subscriber base, and not just their money, then your road to growth gets significantly easier.

  • Cut the fat. track how your users are using the app. Are people interacting with those extra multi-media additions that come with the iPad version of the magazine? If not, cut them out so the app downloads quicker and has less stuff in it.

  • Study how people are reading on the iPad. There are some successful and well-made reading apps out there (such as the Kindle app and Instapaper). Users interact with these apps regularly without complaint. Learn from their strengths.

We Just Want to Read