Comments on the Guardian iPad App

Note: for those who do not use the Guardian App, the following is almost certainly far to detailed to be interesting (I’ll try for broader appeal with my next post), but if you do use it I would really welcome your feedback on my thoughts.

Summary: solid effort, but needs more flair, insight and commitment.

It seems ironic to be criticising the Guardian App for not delivering the exact qualities that Guardian journalists deliver every day: flair, insight and commitment. The problem isn’t the content, and first contact a couple of months ago was very promising, but there are serious issues which simply haven’t been addressed.

I bought a subscription to the Guardian via the App last night. But I did it with my head, not my heart. I often talk about the difference between, say, an Android tablet (“functional, can do everything you would want to do, a logical choice”) and an iPad (“beautiful, just does what you want, an emotional choice”). Right now, the Guardian iPad app is in the former category.

Here is my critique of where it needs improvement. Hopefully they will address these issues as I would like the App to become a central part of my life, just as the Guardian is my newspaper, so I don’t decide to cancel the App in frustration in a couple of months time because I am not using it enough and prefer the web site (or go back to just buying the paper on Friday and Saturday, as I do not have the time to do justice to it more often).

In a blog post last year, expressing his love for his Kindle, Ben Goldacre expressed beautifully the key need that is not delivered by this App: “that one feature – a dynamic personal archive of interesting bits – is AMAZINGLY, ludicrously, and spectacularly helpful: just one more step on the path of outsourcing parts of my personal autobiographical memory to devices so that I can get more done” (http://bit.ly/xoQZWG).

What the Guardian App does well is to take the newspaper and make it available to someone who unwrapped a new iPad for Christmas. These users don’t have an expectation of what an exceptional iPad App should be and accept the limitations of the medium, rather than challenging them. What it does not do well is respond well to the need of experienced, committed iPad users who feel that their device is an extension to themselves. I am sure the implementors know how to design an exceptional iPad App, but I am not sure that the people controlling user experience decisions are allowing them to do so.

Good design is all about understanding and delivering on use cases, and there are key use cases that the App fails to deliver sufficiently. First, addressing a problem the paper does not have – offline use. Second, addressing deficiencies compared to the paper – “tear out and keep” (which is also addressed much better by the web site today). Third, addressing usability compared to other iPad apps. And finally, really exploiting the medium.

1. Offline use. The is the primary reason (today) why an iPad user would buy the App instead of using the web site. But, basically, all you can do in offline mode is read. The only tool for anything else is copy/paste. How do you mark an article to come back to later to read or reread something in a calmer situation? How do You copy a link to come back and follow it when online? Why can’t you share and article and have it tweeted, or whatever, when next online? You can’t even email a link to an article when offline, even though there is no logical reason to need to be online to do so.

2. Tear out and keep. There are several use cases that involve ripping something out of a physical paper: to remind you to do something or to follow up on something later; to show to someone; to read later when you have time; to keep an archive of useful, interesting or entertaining content; etc. Improved copy/paste and Instapaper integration have somewhat addressed these, but not adequately – e.g. only Instapaper is offered, while all my web clippings are in Evernote, and I would also like to bookmark articles and links in Delicious. Both more options to integrate and a generic ability to copy a link to the current article (and copy a link in the current article) are needed – as well as an “Open in Safari” option. Select/Copy/Paste should provide a Select All option, and work for all content (the most important thing missing is photographs – for years I have kept scrapbooks of the best of Guardian photography), but there are also issues selecting some sub-headings which force you to select some text and then expand it to include the heading – and it seems particularly abstruse that you cannot Select in the copyright notice! And why can’t I save a picture, when I can open a link to the web site and save the picture from there?

3. Usability. For me the main issue here is navigation. The Sections/Articles structure is great, but there needs to be a better correlation between the layout of the headline pages and the order of the articles when you page through them – otherwise it is very hard to find your way back to content, and to quickly page through what you want to read (e.g. how do I read all the classical music reviews on a Friday? Or the non-fiction reviews on Saturday? How do I page through the letters to see if mine was published?) I like the idea of serendipity by mixing things up, but as everyone is not interested in everything, in practice it often causes irritation. The most brilliant example being the appearance of the Answers in middle of a series of Quiz Questions (24/12)! Aside from that, when the App has been suspended, why does it always restart on the Issues page – I nearly always want to carry on reading from where I was (the only logical exception is after a new issue has been downloaded). It would be nice to have the Guardian as an App on my home page (but I guess that is a Newsstand restriction). Finally for navigation, there should be some sort of Search across the issues downloaded (and ability to launch a search on the web site). With respect to the actual content, some additional links clearly need to be added for the mobile version – e.g. an article late last year on favourite pubs did not have a link to where they are or to their web site, and the list of top 10 bestsellers in on the Guardian bookstore which did not have a link to buy them! I also find the app a little slow to respond (especially startup – remember mobile App users are in to instant gratification) – but maybe I need to upgrade to an iPad 2. 4. Exploiting the medium. We live in a Mobile, Social, Cloud enabled world. Why is the Comment is Free world isolated from the Mobile App world? Why can’t I access related comments from the context of the article in the App. And contribute to them? Even when offline? I understand why the Paper and the Web have to be different in this respect, but the Mobile App provides a unique opportunity to bridge them – and take the next step forward in defining what a “newspaper” will be in the future.

I tried not to get into solutions above – I believe it is better to identify issues and let smarter people come up with solutions, but as the key is intuitively addressing use cases without the user having to think about how to accomplish them, some solutions are obvious. Taking the first three issue areas above (the fourth is a larger question), here are some thoughts:

1. Offline: The action button should always be available. It should always offer to “Mark Article” for reference later, and there should be a selection alongside Issues/Sections/Settings for “Marks” which displays the list (in some form) and lets you go to one of them (ideally “Mark” should then change to “Clear Mark” and articles with Marks should only be deleted after a second, longer period of time – at which point the Mark goes too, maybe with a warning on startup for a couple of days). The Action button should also offer “Copy Link” (if there is an online equivalent article), and you should be able to Share an article via email, even when offline (and ideally via Tweet, Facebook, Instapaper too, with the action happening when next online).

2. Tear out: “Copy a link” to this article and “Open In Safari” (if it is also on the web) are essential (I can do it by emailing a link, then copying the link from the email and discarding it, but why are you making my life so hard) and also Copy a link in the article (and Open in Safari instead of, or from, the embedded browser?) Also Select/Copy/Paste should work anywhere in the article and should copy everything, including images – which should also offer “Save Image” (just like you can when you view the article in the browser). Ideally I’d like support for Evernote (web clippings), Delicious (bookmarks) and LinkedIn (sharing) – the first preferably working offline with the Evernote app (otherwise offering deferred clipping, alongside deferred bookmarking/sharing) – plus an ability to “Save To” any App on the iPad able to store HTML content. All of this in addition to the Mark proposal above, for coming back to things later.

3. Usability: the physical paper is grouped into sections for a reason, and when you page through the articles (not via the index) on the iPad, the same logic applies (e.g. on Fridays group the film reviews, pop reviews, classical reviews, jazz/world music; or on Saturdays, the non-fiction books, fiction books, children’s books, …) While the Section Headline Pages can aggregate a set of articles onto one (e.g. “Letters and emails” or “Reviews: Film”) when I click on the section and page through, I should get all of the articles in that section, in sequence. It would be easy to navigate directly to the group of articles that I want – as would ordering the pages in roughly the same order as on the HeadlinesnIndex page, rather that completely differently. Whenever I start the App, I should be able to go back to the article I was reading – except at the start of day when it can show the new issue, and if there is an updated version of the issue when it can offer to download it instead of entering the version I was reading. Finally, there needs to be provide more links to content, a Search capability, and improved performance (especially startup and perhaps opening articles).

A couple of things that don’t fit into the categories above would be: adding the Weekend Magazine (magazine’s work brilliantly on the iPad); the crosswords/sodukos (I would be happy to buy an additional app); The Guide (especially the “What’s On” information – and why not leverage your data); and can we please have a free subscription to the iPhone App with the iPad App (as many of us have both devices).

To quote Jonathan Ives “It’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better”. I believe the Guardian was trying to be different to other iPad Newspaper Apps and achieved a lot in the process. But I am not sure it has managed to be better.

The modern Web 2.0, Mobile, Social world has evolved a model of trying something innovative, getting it into users’ hands, listening to feedback, and rapidly evolving and improving it. I was very impressed when I first saw the Guardian App, but have not been so impressed by its subsequent lack of rapid improvement. I hope this changes.

The Guardian prides itself on being different – and also better. I would like to see it’s App do the same.