Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading on the iPad Part 13: New version of WSJ iPad app wrecked the user experience.

First a tip of the hat to my lucky number thirteen. Born on the 13th, and mom now living at #13, thirteen been very very good to me. Alas, Thursday, 13 July 2017 was not a lucky day for my reading experience with the Wall Street Journal iPad app.

Like installment 12, this review is a candidate for my all negative all the time blog, Angry Poetnerd. On 13 July, for my daily read of the Wall Street Journal, I was greeted with a perky, self-congratulatory pop-up announcing the new app version. I hate the new user interface. This article details why.

As early as 2011, in Reading on the iPad Part 4: Extreme disappointment: The Wall Street Journal, I expressed disappointment. I found basic usability problems. Although there were a couple areas where I changed my mind, and where the app improved, I continue to feel that the WSJ iPad developers fail to understand the needs of daily readers. I feel they systematically make a bad app worse -- failing to fix basic problems, and introducing aspects that harm usability.

Review of initial problems:

  • Failure to adopt iPad standard "draw" and "pinch" gestures to enlarge and shrink image. Never fixed. The app still wastes precious screen space with a font resize button. Worse, you don't choose the size. You step through 3 hard-coded sizes.
  • Co-opting standard "pinch" gesture to close article and go back. Fixed. A Back button was added.
  • Broadsheet layout retained, but squished into iPad form factor resulting in tiny article introductions that usually end in the middle of a sentence. Accepted. My opinion here has changed from initial hatred to approval. The positioning and relative sizes of articles turn out to be useful typographical cues. Having seen the Washington Post app abandon this, I miss it.
  • No "Table of Contents View". Fixed for 5 years; broken this week. More details below.

Buggy operation around suspend and sleep:

In my early review, I encountered many problems around resuming the app after either running another app, or putting the iPad to sleep for a while while I did something else. I chose not to mention these problems initially because I expected them to be fixed in short order, and because I wanted to focus on the main flow through the app.

In retrospect documenting the bad behavior from the beginning might have provided useful documentation to other users, and might have gotten usefully back to the developers. Here it is, six years later, and the Wall Street Journal app still simply dies sometimes when I put my iPad to sleep.
It still sometimes completely forgets where I was when I go back to the app. It still sometimes resumes with chunks of the page simply missing. When re-opening the app on a new day, it still often fails to offer a pop-up to take you to the new issue.

No other iPad reading app that I have used has this much difficulty handling resume from suspend and sleep.

Evolving/Devolving Workflow:

In my second post of this series, I provided background and the evaluation criteria for apps that I would review. I suggested that two interfaces were necessary for a complete solution: one that let you "turn all the pages," and one that let you "navigate a table of contents view." In my initial review of the WSJ app, I lamented the lack of a table of contents view.

Shortly thereafter a table of contents view was added. In retrospect, I should have provided an update so as to give credit where credit was due, and to document the evolution of the interface.

The view worked like this: Tap on the three bars in the upper right hand corner to get a list of sections. When you tapped on a section, you got the front page of that section. You could tap on the three bars again to see a list of the articles in the section. It was not ideal for me flipping between a page display and then having to re-enter the table of contents.

Somewhere in 2014, if I'm properly interpreting my somewhat incomplete notes, I spoke with the Digital Editor and expressed how much I hated the table of contents view. I was told that improvements were coming, and indeed one day they came.

The interface changed, and I liked it. Instead of getting the first page of the section, you got the list of articles for the section. For me this was the ideal way to navigate.

  • I always knew all the sections that were available.
  • With a single finger tap, I could see the articles in the section.
  • It was easy to know how many sections and how many articles there were so I could plan my read-through.
  • The app was good at returning me to the table of contents with the article I just read highlit, so it was easy to keep my place as I stepped through the articles.

I didn't make note of the exact date and the exact workflow, because I figured that once the good workflow was established its value would be obvious and it would be kept. On 26 October 2016, an update came through that went back to the old "dump you in the first page of the section" interface. A new bug: sometimes the highlighting failed.

Damaged workflow detailed:

The update that came on 13 July, however, so totally changed the interface, that it provoked me to invest the time to produce this article. I am completely mystified how anyone could consider the new interface an acceptable way to navigate the content.

It used to be that you always had the 3 bars to take you to the list of sections. One of the sections was "Issues". From that page, you could select either the "Latest News" or a particular day's edition of the paper. When the notifier pop-up for a new issue failed, as it often did, it was easy to recover by going to "Issues" and selecting the new one.

Now when you start the app you land on the "Latest News" section by default. The three bars are gone, but now you have "Menu". I think "Menu" is more obvious than three bars, but what is under the menu is not at all obvious. How do you get to today's paper? You just have to know to tap on "Issues". From there you get a scrolling display of the different issues. What was once a mild inconvenience when the notifier bug bit, is now the normal workflow. Where once I got today's paper by default, I now tap and look tap and look. Annoying.

It used to be that, when viewing the table of contents view of a particular edition, you got additional sections like "Journal Report" and "Wall Street Journal Magazine." This made perfect sense. Just like how you received special sections in the print edition, there they were in the iPad edition. With the new interface, you don't get those. They're now grouped ONLY in the "Latest News" edition's table of contents. Since I never read the "Latest News" version, I missed a couple of these inserts until I figured out I needed to start looking there. What I got by default in a timely and graceful manner is now off someplace I used never to look, and have to remember to visit. More annoying.

Having to open the list of articles view again for every section was annoying. But the new interface solution is worse by far. There is no list of articles. You just have to know that you scroll down to see the articles in the section, and you scroll to the right to see the other sections. Are there indicators of any kind to let you know there are more articles to see? No. Well there might be. Sometimes I see a big bold "V" at the bottom of the section screen. But sometimes it's not there when there is more to see, and sometimes it's there when there is nothing more to see. Sometimes I scroll down and get a totally blank page. What used to be a simple, obvious display of what articles there were, how many there were, where you left off in your reading, is all gone, and replaced with an interface that has to be explained and which fails to provide useful, consistent indication of where to go next.

Having had a really good experience with the 2014/2015 edition of the table of contents view, I am beside myself in hatred of this new interface. I am seriously considering canceling my WSJ subscription and switching to reading the Financial Times via Zinio.

To anyone who is reading this article and who also reads the Wall Street Journal on the iPad, I'd very much like to hear if you agree or disagree with me here. Definitely call up the Journal and provide your feedback. When I went to the reviews on the App Store, it seemed like the negative reviews of the new interface outnumbered the positive ones by like 5 to one or more.

Continued Struggles:

I'm not sure if readers will find it easiest to get updates at the end of this article or with new postings. Please feel free to comment with what works better for you.

28 July 2017: The reason why broken recovery from sleep is so annoying:

Breakfast today (when I read the WSJ) has been interrupted by various things. I was in the middle of reading the article "Scaramucci Erupts Over Priebus, Leakers" in today's paper, and I stepped away from my iPad.

I fingerprinted back in, and landed not in the app, but in the folder containing the app. I guess the app crashed.

I restart it, and instead of going to the article I was in the middle of, I got dumped into the front page of "Latest News." To get back to where I was, I do this:
  1. Tap Menu
  2. Tap "Issues"
  3. Tap on the issue I was reading, Friday 28 July 2017.
  4. Tap on "Page One"
  5. Tap on the article I was reading, "Scaramucci Erupts Over Priebus, Leakers"
There. Wasn't that easy? No it wasn't! It epitomizes how the new version has mis-organized the content, and deleted useful interfaces into the content so that the broken resume from sleep forces me to tap tap tap just to get back to where I was in reading today's paper. This is the fundamental problem I have with the new version.

Contrast this with how I would recover in the previous interface I liked best but which got harmed with the update of October 2016:

Restarting the app brings me to the issue I was previously reading.
If I was on the front page, tap on the article. Done.


  1. Tap on the 3 bars to bring up the list of sections.
  2. Tap on the section I was reading.
  3. From the list of articles presented, tap on the one I wanted. Done.

With the October 2016 reversion to the "Force the reader onto the first page of the section and make them re-open the menu" interface, those 3 steps becomes 4 steps:

  1. Tap on the 3 bars to bring up the list of sections.
  2. Tap on the section I was reading.
  3. Tap on the 3 bars to bring up the list of articles.
  4. From the list of articles presented, tap on the one I wanted. Done.
Sometimes one step. Sometimes 3 or 4 steps. Now always 5 steps. This is bad workflow design and represents ignorance of user experience. (In addition to failure, across many years, to get "Restart after sleep" working.)

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