USA Today iPad App Maximizes Familiarity, Leisurely Discovery

I’ll admit that I wasn’t as excited about the iPad as some of my tech-savvy friends. That is, until I got to hold it in my hands and see what it’s like to read news on the device. Of all the news apps I looked at — including those from The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal — I found USA Today’s app to be the most user-friendly.

Three things in particular struck me about the app: the photo galleries; the reader experience, and the familiarity of the interface, which looks very much like the print and online edition of USA Today.

To find out more about the app and what went into creating it, I chatted with USA Today designer Bill Couch via Instant Messenger.

Couch spent five weeks creating the app with others from USA Today and Mercury Intermedia — the same company that helped the news organization develop its iPhone app. The team, Couch said, wanted the app to feel natural to users who are used to reading USA Today online and/or in print.

He described the app, which is free until July 4, as being intended for both “natural discovery” and “leisurely consumption.”

We wanted the application to feel natural and what you might try to do if you could use gestures to interact with the print edition,” said Couch, who was a 2007 Poynter summer fellow. “We wanted to bring some small details like the ragged edge at the top … but we tried to keep the actual interactions from becoming heavy handed.”

The trick in creating the iPad app was to build an interface that was clean, user-friendly and reflective of USA Today’s brand, Couch said. He noted that Apple has a lot of standard user-interface elements for navigating iPhone apps but not nearly as many for the iPad.

“Like most applications for this device, there will be a learning curve with the user interfaces for these applications, but we feel as though people are going to try to tap every part of the screen in these apps, so discovery of interactions will come,” Couch said. “With that in mind, we tried to keep the interface simple. Tapping the large blue USA Today icon to switch sections (also possible via a double-finger swipe anywhere in the app), having pagination arrows at the bottom of articles to shift between pages and stories.”

The reader experience is much like reading a newspaper. Users can scroll down the initial column and then up and over to the next column. They can scroll to the side for other stories.

The majority of content is pulled in using an automated feed from USAToday.com, while the cycling stories at the top of the home page are hand-selected by editors. These cycling stories, which Couch said will be updated at least daily, are reserved for breaking news and for feature cover stories that would otherwise fall out of the feed.

The first time I tried to access USAToday.com via the iPad’s Web browser, I was prompted to download USA Today’s iPad app. Couch created this last-minute feature on Friday to motivate people to take advantage of the more user-friendly app.

One of the other features I really like about USA Today’s iPad app are the high-quality photos — in both the “Day in Pictures” photo gallery and in the stories. Couch said USA Today doesn’t store or publish its gallery photos at the size that they appear on the iPad, so each photo for the galleries and the stories has to be specially hand-cropped for the iPad.

I also liked that when I tried to look up weather, the app asked me for my current location and then stored the information. The location information also comes in handy when filling out the “Snapshots” polls on the app.

Some news consumers are responding well to the content they’ve seen so far on the app. User Lynnecreek said in a review on iTunes that the app has made her want to start reading USA Today again. This isn’t to say the iPad is going to “save journalism,” but there’s something to be said for the positive effects that the iPad could have on the way people consume news.

“I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in years because (mostly) of the amount of paper trash I end up accumulating (and of course recycle). I’ve tried to keep up with current events on my PC, but it just never seemed to be easy or convenient,” Lynnecreek wrote. “Now with this amazing iPad and this app, I’m back to reading USA Today again everyday and actually feel like I’ll be up on current events!”

I agree that the app, and the iPad in general, are a good start. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s no video, for instance, on the USA Today app — a disappointment given how great the photos are.

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“To have the app ready in time, we weren’t able to add it,” Couch said. “Ideally, we’d like to have video, crossword puzzles, stocks and market data.”

For now, I’ll have to visit USAToday.com on another device if I want to see the videos on their site or have fun with crossword puzzles. I’m still impressed with the app — and a lot more excited about the iPad than I imagined I’d be.

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