IPad User Interface Creates New Conventions for Navigating News

The first thing I did Saturday when I got my hands on the iPad was try to touch and swipe everything. You’ll do the same thing — this device is supposed to be handled.

I went to NYTimes.com on Safari, clicked on a headline, and swiped my finger up, watching the story zip past like a slot machine wheel. Encouraged, I went to the home page and swiped my finger across the centerpiece image, hoping to see the next image in the carousel. Nothing. To view the next photo, I had to click the tiny links below the image.

Poynter faculty member Regina McCombs — like me, an iPhone user — tried the same thing with the centerpiece image.

Welcome to the split personality of browsing on the iPad. If you have interface schizophrenia now — getting confused between what works on your laptop and your iPhone — your reality is going to get a lot more confusing with the iPad.

The iPad is supposed to be a third device, between the smart phone and the laptop. And the browsing is a third type of experience, too, requiring you to do some things that you would on your computer and some things that you would on your iPhone.

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It’s a halfway experience. I found myself touching elements on the screen to see if anything would happen, similar to how I pass the mouse across a page to see if the pointer turns into a finger or if something will happen when I hover. Problem is, touching many things on the iPad didn’t really have any effect.

And though you can see so much on the screen, most links are so small that you can’t reliably hit the right ones without zooming in. So the larger screen doesn’t totally eliminate the zooming and panning that is necessary to view pages on the iPhone.

I’m not surprised that the browsing experience is a bit muddled; after all, very few people had touched the device until today. It’s tough to know how hard it is to click a link without trying it with your own fat finger. And you don’t know what people expect to do with the device until you sit down and watch them.

Not surprisingly, iPad apps do a better job with the touch interface. Both BBC and NPR have set up their apps to scroll horizontally across the page, and USA Today uses that for its photo browser.

In The Wall Street Journal’s app, though, you pinch the screen to close an issue and return to the home screen. That’s a bit different from the standard zoom out function. Helpfully, when you open the app for the first time, a “tips” link shows four suggestions on how to navigate.

Early iPad adopters will spend the first day or two learning how to use the device. But they’ll spend the next few months learning the evolving conventions for interacting with content on it.

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