New York Times Designer Argues for Launching iPad App with Limited Features

Apple promotes the iPad as practically unlimited in its potential to reshape how we consume media. No wonder many responded tepidly to some media apps, with complaints about how little they do or how much they resemble their print ancestors.

Bill Couch, the designer of the USA Today iPad app and one of the speakers at Poynter’s “Power of the Tablet” conference, told me he thinks the disappointment stems from the gulf between what we imagine these devices can do and the infancy of iPad app development.

The New York Times Editors’ Choice app has faced some of these criticisms. It’s generally seen as well-designed and polished, but limited in features and content.

The Editors’ Choice app is a sampling of top stories in several — but not all — sections of the New York Times website. The app doesn’t include full-screen photographs and until recently didn’t have a separate section to showcase videos — both of which the iPad excels at displaying.

So I was intrigued to hear Jennifer Brook, an information architect for the Times, describe the design decisions for the Editors’ Choice app. In her talk during the conference, she made the case for an app that performs a few core functions that will be improved upon over time.

“I think it’s OK if you launch with something that’s not amazing … if you’re committed to over time make it better,” she told me in an interview after her talk. She added in a followup e-mail that this approach “positions you to both evolve an application over time and respond to changing user expectations.”

The limited content of the Editors’ Choice app, she said, was a business decision, not a design one. The Times has said it’s working on a paid app, which may coincide with the implementation of a pay wall for its website in January 2011.

Brook, who has worked on the Times’ flagship iPhone app and has been involved in a couple of specialized apps for real estate and entertainment, made it clear during our talk that she was speaking from the perspective of a user experience designer, not a product manager.

Her points may not convince those who have criticized the Editors’ Choice app, but it does explain some of the thinking behind it.

iPad app was influenced by research on iPhone use

Last summer, back when the iPad existed only in Apple R&D and in whispers about some kind of revolutionary tablet computer, the Times did some research on how people use its iPhone app.

One of the key findings, Brook said, was that “people loved reading on the device,” often opting to read stories on their iPhones rather than their computers.

“We felt like that was one of the big opportunities for what we were doing” with the iPad app, she said. “Let’s create a calm, immersive, beautiful environment to read.”

Designers decided to perfect a small set of features

After reviewing iPad app ratings in the iTunes, Brook has concluded that there is an inverse relationship between the number of features in an app and how highly customers rate it.

That shows that people prefer “apps that promise less and really deliver on one or two things that they promise,” Brook said. This influenced the development of the Editors’ Choice app.

Likewise, she advised in her talk that designers and developers should weigh carefully the cost of building in features that aren’t essential to the vision for a particular app.

“Everything that you want to include requires time,” she told me, “and if you have a limited amount of time or resources, if you’re trying to do too much, you’re not going to do those two or three things really well.”

App team engaged in “courageous redirection

Brook was part of a small team of Times employees who went to California on a hush-hush assignment to create a demo in time for the unveiling of the iPad.

Though they went to Apple envisioning an app that would use a grid-like interface (she referred to Times Skimmer in her talk) with many sections and articles, they abandoned that approach once they saw it on the device. “We were thinking about these problems before we really understood the problem space,” she said, which was a factor of both the device and the operating system.

As she described this experience in her talk, she urged the audience to read a blog post by Andrew Hinton about “courageous redirection,” which he defined as “an instance where a design team or company was courageous enough to change direction even after huge investment of time, money and vision.”

She emphasized the importance of seeing your app on the iPad — or whatever device you’re designing for — as early as possible in the process. She suggested that designers load full-size images on an iPad so they can see how their design will look within the frame of the device. (Some designers used cardboard models to get a sense of the iPad before it was widely available.)

App features can affect production of other news products

The exclusion of some features, at least for now, is not all by design. Some has to do with the complications of building a new platform into an existing publishing system. “Anything you do in the app, you have to be committed to that idea because it could have serious repercussions” throughout the news organization, Brook said.

For example, she said there is general agreement at the Times that the app should display full-screen photos. But It doesn’t do that now because that change would affect the Times’ system for handling and feeding photos across all its publishing platforms. “We would love to have full-size photos on the app, but you have to tell 300 producers that they now have to crop their photos,” she said.

Likewise, when D.W. Pine of Time magazine explained the workflow for the magazine’s app, he described how the design team starts on the iPad edition after they finish the week’s printed version. The workload for the iPad edition, he said, has been carried by the design desk.

“A lot of people are talking about creating ‘tablet editions,’ ” Brook said, “but the reality is, it has to be sustainable.”

Commit to improving what you have

Because the iPad platform and other apps are continually improving, Brook said it’s important to make sure that an app is flexible enough to respond quickly to changes down the road. “If you’re not setting yourself up to be responsive,” she said, “then within a year your thing is going to feel kind of stale.”

The Times recently released an update to the Editors’ Choice app that added sections for arts and videos and improved sharing tools. The company has said the app will be updated, but it’s unclear how much — and what will become of it when a robust, paid version is released.

Couch said after Brook’s talk that he could relate to the design and technical challenges that she described.

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“Because this platform is so new, and no one can say with legitimate confidence that they know unwaveringly how to approach it, it was just satisfying and almost relieving to hear of others’ similar experiences,” he explained in an e-mail after the conference. “You’re always wondering, ‘Are we the only ones going through this right now?’ “

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