Take the app-ortunity: design for tablets

In the publishing world the word on everyone’s lips is “Digital Publishing”.

Though most people use this term to describe publishing to new devices such as the iPad, Android tablets and other mobile devices, I have noticed that a lot of designers are not sure how to publish to these new devices and how to create their ‘app’ (which seems to be what most people want to do).

Personally, I think hype around new possibilities and a vibrant emerging market are beneficial to drive innovation forward. Remember the Internet in the 90’s? A lot of parallels can be drawn between the heyday of the Internet bubble and today’s rise of Digital Publishing. We can probably safely assume that tablets will stick around (like the Internet did). And Apple has definitely been the catalyst with the introduction of the iPad just over a year ago.

So what are the main characteristics of emerging trends and new markets? Typically people jump on the first solutions available, and then work on refining them, based on market feedback, consumer preference and business models. In Digital Publishing I noticed that publishers of all shapes and forms (corporate publishers, catalog publishers, as well as magazines, newspapers and also other “content producers” like photographers, artists, and designers) quickly went “tablet”.

And to land on tablets, content is generally published via an “app” — a discrete application that readers need to download and install.

Most designers and publishers produced first-generation apps that almost felt like interactive PDF, mimicking print media: showing a table of content, using pages, allowing to flip pages, creating linear pages or page stacks and so on. Although it’s an app and pages have multimedia objects (audio, video, animations etc.), it still feels almost like a PDF, but on some mild steroids.

This approach worked fine for a while, attracting readers to pay for content, as they were still infatuated with the new medium. Soon, though, you could see that interest died out, as there wasn’t much additional value in the magazine app (except being available digitally on the go).

I believe people moved on because the content and design weren’t tailored to the device, so it didn’t feel natural. It felt like printed media. That is not saying that PDF or printed media are wrong, it’s just that on a tablet readers expect something different.

Remember the Flash-based flipbook catalogs or flipbook magazines a while ago? They were really fashionable, a must-have. They showed what state-of-the-art technology could do. However, after readers looked at flipbooks once because they look so cool, they then switched back to the HTML or print version. Because flipbooks just didn’t feel natural and didn’t give readers any advantages (if only, disadvantages related to the high hardware requirements of Flash that often felt slow).

At the moment, a lot of content apps are what I would classify as second-generation. They feel and behave more like web pages than PDFs. That’s an improvement, as digital is more akin to web pages than paper.

But why not use a HTML page in a web browser then? It seems that many readers using a mobile device feel that using a browser is “so noughties” (meaning a thing of the 2000s). A recent study (http://goo.gl/cgKxb) shows that readers spent more time using apps than a browser. So that probably means your content gets more attention and attracts more readers (customers, consumers) if it’s within an app.

Don’t get me wrong, I see great uses for first and second-generation apps and there are good examples that work well. However, if you are a content creator and want to distribute your content in a richly designed format, you constantly need to ask yourself: what is the best way to attract readers? Content is one, design and experience the other. So, do something different: design the next generation.

Design for digital and be agnostic to the device.

I think moving away from the “flip pages” metaphor is definitely the first step. Secondly, design a page with finger-swipe support in mind and make sure that the layout adapts to the content you are reading. Now, that’s a new way of delivering content: you stay on the same canvas and your content doesn’t feel static. Thirdly, and of course only if it makes sense to strengthen your message, take advantage of 360° product shots, 3D-worlds and panoramic experiences, show rich content in slideshows that can be expanded to show a wider view and so on. Or – in a nutshell – make the most of the possibilities of a tablet.

Overall the market is not mature yet and that’s a great chance for everybody entering it now. There’s still a lot of room for creating experiences that feel native to tablets, and that enable us to browse and experience content much more easily. It will be interesting to see how the market adopts Web Apps.

Screenshot showing a page inside an iPad app adopting to content
Click picture to see an example of a page adapting to content that is swiped (scrolled) up and down, taken from the upcoming App Studio in QuarkXPress