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Publisher – there’s a relic in my soup

Skeuomorphism and the online user experience

The question “Are you for – or against – flipbook magazines and why?” appeared in a publishing forum recently, prompting the desire to shed some light on how we at Infestation view publishing for, and in, the digital stratosphere.

There were well over 160 responses to the question, each person passionately adding their opinions to the ongoing debate – with many in support of the technology. In their favour, flipbooks were at one time the only easily-accessible technology for someone wanting to publish online. To date, many still believe this technology to be a viable option, since the possibilities that rich media adds to enhance the reading experience, is a definite plus.

The other reason for the fierce debate though, is that skeuomorphism is one of the last old -school vestiges lurking in the online wings.

The desire to emulate what we can touch, hold and smell in real life, still seems to exist in online publications, even though we’ve left it behind on most other platforms. This can possibly be put down to the fact that the reading needs of Boomers and Millenials have somehow smashed together to form an uneasy alliance, and while the Millenial still can’t figure out the fuss about print being redundant, the Boomers can’t envisage a world without it. So we hang onto ornamental design cues that were necessary in the original, but refuse to acknowledge that these structures are no longer needed. The cheesy sound of the page turning as we click to ‘flip’ the online page is a classic example of this redundancy.

People want flipbooks because it resembles the familiar. The fact that the mechanism doesn’t work that well on all mobile devices and browsers, gets overlooked. Ever tried reading a flipbook on your phone? After 30 seconds you will tire of waiting for content to load. You will also get horribly lost on the page while you frantically scroll around looking for where you left off at the bottom of the last column. And yes, for a user’s online experience, columns fall under the category heading  ‘relic’ – useful in print, but not great on a mobile phone.

Not only is the user experience generally quite poor in Flipbooks, but search engine optimization is also difficult because most are still Flash or image-based at the core. Long-tail search results are harder to attain because, in most cases, not all text is available to search engines.

So where should digital publishing be focusing its efforts?

In truth, we need to first be asking WHAT needs to be communicated to WHOM, and only then figuring out the best mechanism or platform to do so. In other words, the medium is only a means to an end – whether this be a custom-designed white label app for enticing a tourist to engage with your business, a content-managed WordPress newsletter to keep your staff informed of the company’s activities, or an EPub aimed at selling a recipe book on Amazon. Each case warrants a tailored approach when publishing for an online environment, to ensure a greater user experience.

What’s all the fuss about producing publications that are optimised for mobile devices?

There are now three times as many mobile phones in the world as there are computers, and 66% of people get their news on mobile devices. Readz notes that 112.5 million adults in the US are expected to own a tablet in the year 2016. The tablet is a lean-back device: something you use when you have spare time and are relaxed, and is best for longer-form journalism. A recent Pew study showed that 73% of tablet owners read in-depth articles at least sometimes, including 19% who do so daily. The Association of Magazine Media also found that users with both mobile and tablet access, spend 23% of their time reading magazines on their phones. With tablets, that number is more than three times this, at 75%!

While mobile phones are for snack reading of brief articles in short sessions (like when you’re on the bus), mobile phones are increasingly a gateway to long-form articles. It is ironic then that in a recent survey in the US and UK, 60% of respondents felt that nothing could be done to make them read more often on their phones, with many saying a poor user experience as the reason.

So while rich media and cross-platform accessibility are two very important factors in the future of publishing, user experience should be the number one priority with those wishing to get content to market, and in turn, getting the market to engage and respond to it.

No wonder then that Flipbooks lost the original market share they gained – they simply stopped innovating the user experience.

Looking ahead

Subscription-based digital magazines that are truly successful, are those getting the balance right not only in terms of publishing best-practice (content marketing, discoverability, successful advertising sales and hard-working subscriptions bases) but also focusing strategically on what is experienced by the user when they are reading, and how they absorb content in real time.

What we really should be doing, is taking a long hard look at the specific mix needed for each individual publication in order for it to successfully serve its niche in the market, and then figure out the technology needed to create it.

 

By Sam Bainbridge

 

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