When it comes to designing tablet apps, can news organizations sometimes be too smart for their own good?
Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, recently told the Editors Weblog "Tablet users seem to be particularly keen on reading text, and for long periods."
"That, rather than bells and whistles, is what our apps provide, and what our readers seem to want," says Standage.
To back up his statement, Standage cites a PEW study from October, carried out in collaboration with The Economist Group. The study notes that news users "are highly likely to read long articles on their tablets, not just get headlines." In fact, 42% of tablet news consumers read in-depth articles, versus just 16% who browse news interactively by sharing content on social networks.
Unexpectedly perhaps, readers often do not access these articles through apps. "Contrary to many expectations, news apps have not become the primary interface for news on tablets," states the study. Over a third of users have no news apps at all, and those that do have them don't always use them.
In fact, according to PEW's research, 40% of tablet news readers access news sites through their browser. 31% use their browser and apps the same amount. A mere 21% rely mostly on apps. What's more, a 42% of those who read long articles did so through their browser, as opposed to 31% who did so through apps, and 27% who used both functions equally.
Does this mean that clever news organizations should be moving away from fancy-pants apps and just give readers a user-friendly way to read long-form articles, perhaps not so different from a browser?
The idea is suggested in an article by Lucia Moses in Adweek, who writes that publishers' research shows that "having a tricked-out app isn't the highest priority". She quotes Chris Wilkes, vice president of Hearst Magazines who is responsible for its App Lab. Wilkes says that "advanced elements are often more likely to be distracting, cause confusion, and occasionally irritate customers if the execution is not perfect."
Steve Sachs, executive vice president of consumer marketing and sales at Time Inc. backs him up. "The number one benefit is to have a great reading experience reading the tablet," Moses quotes him as saying. "Interactive elements are valuable to [readers], but they're a secondary benefit."
However, Moses also shows the other side, saying that some important industry figures think "it's a mistake to go plain vanilla". She reports that Rebecca McPheters, the president of McPheters & Co., a service that rates apps, says that the most sophisticated, enhanced products are pulling in the most money.
The economics are tricky though, as its not certain how much of this is down to readers, and how much is down to another powerful force - Apple. Moses quotes Matt Bean, associate vice president of mobile, social and emerging media at Rodale, who states that, when it comes to the Apple Apps store, "the enhanced editions are being promoted more and the reviews are more favorable". Apple obviously has an interest in choosing products that show off what the ipad can do.
This all makes it rather hard for news organizations to decide which way to go with their apps. How do you weigh up what your readers seem to like against what's most likely to gain exposure and earn you money?
Perhaps there's one key point to take away: what an app offers must be tailored successfully to its content. It makes sense that The Economist, an in-depth, analytical magazine, should find success by giving its readers the opportunity to read its long articles in peace, rather than offering lots of frilly ad-ons that show all singing, all dancing representations of GDP ratios. On the other hand, Moses quotes the executive director of digital magazine development at Condé Nast, Scott Dadich, who says that who says that for a magazine like GQ "seeing models on a fashion shoot, or seeing the clothes move--there's definitely value in that."
Renowned newspaper designer Mario Garcia wrote a blog post a few weeks ago in which he weighed up the pros and cons of a tablet app that looks more like print, versus one that is more heavily "curated". Garcia comes to a balanced conclusion.
"Both can be correct," he writes, "it is a matter of intent, the impact one wishes to create, and how we feel the DNA of the printed product best translates."