A better Chronicle iPad app

As an avid news reader and fan of local journalism, one of the most exciting things about getting my new iPad was being able to drop my print subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle and give the SF Chron’s iPad app a try. I’d be saving paper, saving myself money (an all-access pass to the iPad app is cheaper than a Sunday-only print subscription) and I’d get news from the Chronicle between editions. Best of all, I could sample firsthand how newspapers are moving to the 21st century.

A few months in, I wanted to stop and take stock, and offer some feedback that hopefully someone at the Chronicle will find useful.

The Upside

After a few months of reading the newspaper on my iPad, I’ve found that it’s coming close to being as enjoyable as reading the Chronicle in print. I don’t get to see quite as much information at once, but I love the “Live” edition which updates throughout the day. I can find everything I used to read (even if it takes a little longer), and my fingers aren’t covered in newsprint at the end.

I love the photo/multimedia spreads. They are much more engaging in print than even on sfgate.com. The upside, though, isn’t all that interesting. Let’s get to my feedback on the faults with the app.

The Problems

(I’ve broken them into mini-rants).

Flawed basic pagination

The single-biggest design flaw in the Chronicle iPad app really comes down to a basic they should have nailed: pagination. Just reading through an article is a painful, clumsy experience.  Here’s why:

  • Bizarrely, the app uses two different kinds of pagination. Occasionally, you’ll find that you can scroll up or down through an article. I think most people will find that scroll up or down is a much more pleasant experience. This is a tablet, not a print book or newspaper — let’s drop the idea of “pages”. Just give me the entire article, and let me scroll through it as I please. If you’re worried I’ll feel it’s too long, or I need other ways to break up an article, there are other ways to solve that problem through interface elements, like surfacing subheader titles while scrolling, etc. Path has done this beautifully with the tiny scrolling clock that scrolls with you as you scroll down or up.
  • When you do scroll to the right or left to change pages within an article, you’re greeted with a horrible experience. The entire page disappears! Instead of just replacing the content within the bounding box of the article, the user sees all the content on the page — the masthead, the navigation, etc. — disappear and then load once again. It’s a very distruptive experience for what should be one of the most lightweight actions a reader will take: simply reading on! The answer should be obvious — but only the content that’s being scrolled through should change, not all the other page elements. Here’s a visual of what happens:

 

Navigating between articles

On the topic of basic interface design that misses the mark, there’s another experience that leads to strange outcomes and user confusion: Navigating to a new article. What should be a simple experience isn’t quite as elegant as it could be, because the iPad’s nav jumps around after each use.

A basic tenant of good Web design is “placement consistency“, meaning that “navigation appears in the same location on web pages.” The Chronicle app is breaking that rule, because each time you click on an article name in the left-hand article navigation panel, that article jumps to the top of the page (not to mention all page elements refresh, as discussed above).

This isn’t the way it should work. Usable, well-designed navigation should stay right in place, allowing users to quickly jump between articles. By moving the article to the top each time, you’re forcing users to quickly re-learn where each article link is found, each time. Instead, use a background color to signify the “current” article, as the iPad app is already doing!

Sidenote: Also helpful, would be a “pressed” color for links in the article nav. They should change color after being pressed (currently they only change after being visited).

 

Don’t show me ads!

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’d hoped that in moving to an tablet news source that I was actually paying for, I could avoid ads. This should be the case, because it’s damn clear that ads are destroying the user experience of the app.

Tablet real estate is very limited, and the app keeps an ever-present banner ad at the bottom of the app. Additionally, on occasion I will get flashed with a full page, instertitial ad. That’s just too much. For $5.99/mo, I shouldn’t be seeing this crap. It’s brutal for the user experience, and seriously turns me off from using the app. If you need to charge me a dollar more each month, do it. These ads are horrific and make me want to put the iPad down.

 

Sleep mode loses your place

The Chronicle iPad app seems to very quickly lose its place in memory when put to sleep. When I put the iPad to sleep and then wake it from sleep, the app typically has to reload completely. Instead, the app should just bring me back to where I just was, instantly.

This is a common use case, as I’ll frequently be reading the app while watching TV, talking to friends or in transit. I’m constantly putting it down and picking it back up; don’t force me to wait 5-15 seconds each time for the app to refresh.

 

Gallery thumbnails disappear too quickly

I’m a big fan of the multimedia galleries. However, they can be a bit tricky to use. Left/right swipe works fine to move between images, but if you wait a few seconds, the thumbnails will often disappear automatically.

Want to get them back? Swiping up from the bottom doesn’t bring them back. Think that tapping on the screen will bring the thumbnails back? Me too. It doesn’t — it hides the caption as well. You must click again, a second time, to bring back the thumbnails.

My advice: Just don’t autohide the thumbnails. Add a prominent “Hide Thumbnails” button or icon, and let the users do it on their own. They’re not very disruptive and they are very helpful for most users, so let them be seen!

 

Links should be buttons, not plain text

Many of the action buttons in the iPad app are links, not buttons. This is a little confusing, and not super easy for the user to click. Instead, try using buttons. They’re a lot clearer to users. Hitting an individual link — especially one that only takes up one line of text — can be hard for users, especially older ones.

Check out the comparison below of action links in the Chronicle iPad app vs Flipboard, one of the best-designed print magazine-style apps out there.

 

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