Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reading on the iPad Part 4: Extreme disappointment: The Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal set an impressive milestone when it maintained and expanded online readership after putting most of the content behind a pay wall. Perhaps others were driven to the online-only subscription as I was when the print subscription price doubled. At any rate, the online Wall Street Journal does a pretty good job of offering all the content of the print edition as well as additional, more up-to-date content on "internet time."

I've read The Wall Street Journal every day since 1986 or so. I began by reading it like a book -- studying every word of most articles to understand the basics of business and business news. Over the years I evolved a ritual of flipping all the pages, and letting my eye work together with the typography to get what I wanted about the relevant business, world, and national stories currently in play.

When I switched to the online WSJ, I had to radically change my ritual. It was too time consuming to flip through every article. However the web site, for each section of the paper, provided an excellent table of contents. I settled into a comfortable triage and selection ritual, opening the articles in background tabs so that they would download and render while I finished the current table of contents. Thus I took explicit control to enable the content to be on screen when I wanted, maintaining smooth workflow.
When I went to The Wall Street Journal iPad application, I was hopeful that I could establish an even more efficient flow, because the whole issue would be loaded in and cached on the iPad.

Sadly, I found the WSJ iPad experience to be like trying to read a newspaper through a peep hole via remote manipulation, as one might work with radioactive isotopes. The iPad app gives you a transformed image of every page. The articles are placed on the page in the same place they appear in the paper edition, but since the "paper" is six inches by eight inches instead of 29 by 23 inches, the article text is truncated. The truncation almost always happens in the middle of a sentence. Although I get more text than I would find in the summary entry on the Web site, I am left less sure of whether or not I want to read the article. I suspect a subtle aspect of human factors is at work -- the brain's craves completion when offered half a sentence makes it more difficult to skip the follow-up and move on.

In fairness, I can see how this was an interesting attempt to transform a typographically useful layout onto a radically smaller a display area. Unfortunately I found the experience extremely unpleasant. I had to go back to flipping through every page of the paper, but my flow was interrupted by having to tap on articles I would not have ordinarily read in order to feel comfortable moving on.

Increasing the unpleasantness, the WSJ iPad app uses a unique gesture to return from following an article. Everywhere else on an iPad, the pinch gesture shrinks the image. In the WSJ iPad article, it means, "Close" the article you were reading and go back to what you were doing before.

Such a "Close" gesture is really quite clever. It pretty much means what it is, and it is a reasonable paradigm for returning from a diversion into an article. There are two problems with it: The pinch gesture is already established as another behavior and there is a quarter century of experience with a thing called a "Back" button.

So, in spite of the great effort made by Dow Jones & Company, I find myself going back to the web browser for my daily read of The Wall Street Journal. On the iPad this has a couple additional consequences: I will not be able to read the WSJ offline. This downside is somewhat reduced by my viewing a fairly small number of articles that are only kilobytes in size. Easily accommodated by the cellular network.

I will not be using Safari to read it until Safari offers tabbed browsing. I spent the $0.99 for Atomic Browser so that I can "Open Page in Background Tab" just like I do on my desktop. However, Atomic Browser's extreme aversion to any pop-ups, means that photos that are shown with a pop up simply do not work and I need an additional link to re-log in when the WSJ server has expired my session keys. (This seems to happen more frequently than I would expect, once every couple days rather than every couple of weeks.)

Recognizing the challenge of a faithful typographical rendition on the small iPad form factor I would suggest the following amendments to the iPad app for The Wall Street Journal:
  • Provide a navigation and control bar as the apps for The Economist and Wired do.
  • Put a "Back" button on that control bar, and get rid of the "Close" gesture.
  • Make every subset article end on a sentence, or ideally, a paragraph boundary.
  • Offer the multiple sectional table of contents access mechanism copied in from the web version.
These changes are applying lessons learned from the successful apps: Make navigation explicit, and tune up the table of contents for online viewing.

For now, I classify the iPad app for The Wall Street Journal as "too clever in ways that significantly degrade usability."

This concludes part 4. Continue with Reading on the iPad Part 5: outsourcing to qmags works well!.

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