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Skeuomorphism, e-editions, and tablets

Submitted by yelvington on April 3, 2012 - 1:04pm

I remember the first time I saw one of those Flash-based "page turning" interfaces. I was sitting in a conference room in Minneapolis and an excited sales guy was pitching his company's tool, which could take newspaper pages and put them online as a print replica, saving us from all that messy Web stuff. He was so earnest and proud.

I was horrified. The Web isn't print. The Internet is a new medium with unique strengths. The whole idea was just ... sacrilege.

I've changed my point of view somewhat over the years, for several reasons:

  • There's more than one way to do it. Single-product thinking is an old habit from the last century that we really need to get over. There is no requirement that publishers choose between Web, e-edition, print-derived tablet versions, and something that looks like it should be hosted by Alex Trebek. When possible, let the users choose for themselves, individually.
  • People like skeuomorphic design in general. It's why desktop computers have "desktops" of their own. And trash cans. And folders. It makes the product feel comforting and familiar, and can contribute to ease of use. Personally, I blew away my Kindle Fire's wood-grained "bookshelf" launch screen in favor of an Android launcher, but others have different preferences.
  • Some people like print. Its limitations can feel like features. It's fixed in time. It's linear. You can flip through it and feel like you've had an overview. It has a beginning and an end. It's not like the Web, where you just keep going until you're exhausted. And there is value in the editorial judgment that is reflected in page design. We don't all live on first-in/first-out real-time queues, breathlessly following the latest news.
  • I don't feel threatened by print. I understand that others do, but I'm fortunate to work at a company where that battle is over.

One thing that helped me change my mind is what happened when we built Bluffton Today in 2005 as a website focused entirely on community conversation. We didn't plan to put news online at all (the paper was daily and free at the time). When we ran into some delivery barriers in a couple of gated communities, we added a PDF-derived E-edition. I was quite surprised by the intensity of use and the positive community feedback. Users liked the E-edition and the website, and used them for different purposes.

So I haven't changed my point of view that the Web isn't print and the Internet is a new medium with unique strengths.

In fact, I think adaptive HTML5 Web layouts on the "everything just works" principle ultimately will eclipse smartphone and tablet apps. But eclipse doesn't mean replace. And so long as we're producing a print product and making a digital replica is cheap and easy, I think it makes perfect sense to offer it as a product and let the consumer choose.

We're not currently offering any Flipboard-like interfaces on our websites. It's not a matter of design, but of simple economics. While we have all the necessary data to drive an algorithmically defined interface, we have an awful lot of plates spinning already, and one more set of potentially incompatible advertising delivery challenges just isn't something we need to take on right now. Maybe later. For the moment, I'd rather focus on making HTML5 Web pages adaptive and finger-friendly for touch interfaces.

Comments

How'd you swap out the homepage on your Kindle Fire? I didn't see an option to bypass their native interface. Curious as to how you were able to do that.

Steve, Your observations regarding replica editions hit home with me, a former e-edition hater who now sees opportunity to build on a niche that prefers computers but the comfort of an old-school format. I do not believe replica editions are a savior and we have many other irons in the fire at The Bakersfield Californian, but we've been stunned by the reception to our iPad replica edition launched in July. As I noted in a related Twitter thread today, The Californian's iPad app is not native but is an optimized version of our replica edition. By optimized, I mean readers can one-tap to zoom in on individual stories or ads, click on urls to bring up live webpages, search articles, save stories to read later, etc. It's pretty simple, and I think that's a bonus. I'm not a big fan of many replica editions and went out of my way to downplay ours for years (and publicly proclaimed Flipboard the future of web design). However, I think our new replica edition is among those that translates well to an iPad. Here are a few reasons: 1) Two-and-a-half years ago, we went from broadsheet to tabloid Monday-Friday, and that smaller size rocks on larger tablets. People with decent vision can read stories without having to zoom or adjust the page to fit the screen. The presentation looks natural on an iPad, which goes a long way to closing the gap between print and Flipboard. 2) The tabloid format is sticky, because its linear design pulls readers deep into each edition (our online metrics and reader surveys support 15-35% YOY increases in tab vs. broadsheet engagement). Our average iPad visit is about 28 minutes, far above what we see on our news site online. Granted our iPad audience is smaller, but it's very loyal and attentive. We're not too far off from launching an HTML5 version of our replica edition that will work with other tablet platforms. That version will be less replica and more a bridge into native specialty apps, of which we're planning to test several (including the Publish2 HTML5 platform from @ScottKarp). Between the iPad and HTML5 we'll have a good foundation to build on as we look add a few bells and whistles to that "dinosaur" replica edition, including embedded audio, video and galleries; replica-only advertising (which I know you're doing with success at some of your papers); and content exclusive to the replica. So, while I don't see replica editions as an end-all, it's far from a digital dead end. One last thing before I bail: A huge benefit of a replica edition is we can study metrics page by page, story by story, ad by ad. Want to know if people are reading the jump to a story? We can see. Want to know if people consistently ignore certain beat coverage? We can tell you. Want to know if people are spending time on a well-designed full-page ad? We can tell you AND the advertiser. Granted usage of a replica edition isn't the same as the printed edition. But while those two versions may not be apples to apples, they're more like oranges to tangerines, and far more relevant than looking solely at website page views in measuring engagement. There's fantastic insight in those numbers that we'll be using to improve our overall "print" packaging and coverage.

I've long felt as you did about these e-editions -- that they lack an understanding of what's possible with the web. I once described supporters as people who would use a holodeck to make special effects for movies. But I can't deny the growing evidence that these replicas seem to be popular, despite lacking many of the features the web offers, such as linking to original source documents, updates, photo galleries, data bases, etc. (I do look forward to checking out the Californian, to see how those are all provided) It's worth asking, however, whether people are gravitating to these replicas because we haven't really kept the promise of the web -- or whether readers are sticking to a familiar design because the alternatives are, all too often, SOOO BAAAD! In print, it's intuitively obvious what's most important, compelling, etc., based on the design (look at papers in a language you don't read to confirm that). Or consider "The Onion" front page announcing WWI; as I recall, the headline was in giant type -- so large that only "WA" fit on the front page, and the "R" was jumped inside. It's a silly example, but how many newspaper websites today would depart from their usual design if WWIII started -- and how quickly would that breaking news get automatically "rotated" off the front page to make way for the daily mail-box bashings and zoning board agendas? An interesting test would have been to look at news sites in Kansas and Kentucky on Sunday night and Monday morning -- could you tell something bigger than usual had happened? I wish I'd looked...