The Guardian’s iPad edition

When the Guardian’s iPad edition came out in October 2011 I wanted to use it for a while before writing about it. I didn’t plan on waiting this long, but here we are, in the future, and I still like it, very much.

Overall

Guardian iPad edition - National front pageThe Guardian iPad edition is pretty much what I hoped for. It looks and feels like the Guardian — the newspaper’s design has been nicely and cleanly re-worked for the smallish screen. It includes the content of the day’s newspaper (with, currently, a few exceptions such as crosswords, the Guide, and the Saturday magazine; at least some of which will be included soon). It doesn’t feature any user comments (this is glorious). And it’s about as easy to flip through the day’s news on an iPad as it is with the paper version.

So I enjoy using this much more than my Today’s Guardian website, what with the iPad edition looking more Guardian-like, being slicker (as it’s a native app), having all the content (I was hampered by what’s available through the API), and having useful graphical touches (for example, it’s usually easy to see which articles are news and which are one person’s opinion). It’s good work. It feels like a “product”, something worth paying for, unlike a website.

Guardian iPad edition - A Comment pageSome people probably dislike the “daily paper”-ness of the iPad edition. I can see it might seem old fashioned to bundle up one day’s news into a collection to read the following the day. Why not show me the current headlines, not yesterday’s? But this digital edition isn’t designed to satisfy the quick fix of getting on top of this hour’s news. It is, like a broadsheet newspaper, more about finding deeper knowledge about current events.

But this makes me wonder at what point the iPad edition’s content will become distinct from the newspaper’s, which it currently replicates. With fewer physical restrictions on its overall size, or the size of individual articles, maybe the iPad version will start to feel hampered by the older technology’s restrictions. It already sometimes features short videos — no doubt there will one day be more of that, more charts, longer articles, more articles… many possibilities.

I am pleased with the iPad edition, and will be paying the £9.99 per month when the initial free trial period is over later this month. (Some people, used to reading everything online for “free” and mistakenly believing this is in any way sustainable, are outraged over this cost. It looks like a bargain to me: the paper Guardian costs more than three times as much as the iPad version.)

One-dimensionality

Our glorious tablet future isn’t perfect though. While I love the convenience and cheapness of the iPad Guardian, if I had that and the newspaper sitting next to each other, I’d go for the latter. (Although, as I write that, I’m less sure of it than I would have been a couple of months ago.)

Nothing yet beats paper for information density and readability. Couple that with the larger size, even of a single page, and the consequent flexibility of design, and newspapers provide a much richer and interesting experience than any tablet version. Compare these two examples of the same story:

Guardian, paper and iPad versions

The newspaper version combines several related articles into a single spread, along with a VERY BIG GRAPH, and several illustrative photos. The iPad version can’t possibly show us more than a few paragraphs of a single article. (I wrote about this kind of problem a couple of months ago.) What we gain in convenience we lose in variety and flexibility of design.

Maybe, over time, there will be more varied ways of displaying information within the Guardian’s iPad edition, without confusing its simple interface, but we’ll still have to accept the trade-offs over screen size (at least, until our glorious flexible, foldable, colour e-ink future arrives).

This one-page-per-article experience also creates a different relationship with certain articles. For example, in the paper version I could easily ignore some regular articles, such as Country Diary or today’s birthdays, by just not looking at them. Now, every distinct item has its own page, so I must daily click past things that previously weren’t an annoyance.

Advertising

The other main annoyance I have with the iPad edition is the adverts. I’m no fan of adverts generally and I am very pleased that the article pages contain no ads at all — reading a new article on a screen without a brightly-coloured, flashing graphic trying to distract me is such a treat. But I was surprised how frustrating I find the iPad’s full-page adverts.

These appear, without warning, between every few normal pages, and are full-colour, full-screen images that can be moved on from instantly. But there’s something obstructive and rude about them that I don’t find with newspaper adverts, even double-page print spreads. Why do I find them so much more annoying? I’m not entirely sure.

Maybe it’s because moving on from them requires a physical action, whereas most print ads share a spread with articles that your eyes can shift to with no effort. Maybe it’s the unexpected nature of the ads — because they feel so separate from the main content they feel randomly and crudely inserted, rather than part of the experience. Maybe it’s because the ads are so generic — for large companies and products — and of no interest to me. Maybe it’s because they’re so repetitive — the iPad Guardian currently only appears to have a handful of advertisers and I’m tired of skipping over ads for the same few things (a red car, a mechanical hummingbird, a small TV showing Pirates of the Caribbean, a Paralympic sprinter) without reading a single word of them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the iPad edition’s ads become more “interactive” than static images. The edition is currently sponsored by Channel 4 who include ads for, I think, what they’re showing that night. These manage to be even more annoying than static images, bringing my iPad to a brief, juddering halt as the ad tries to do something clever and slidey that I’ve never stuck around long enough to investigate.

Still, until I rule the world and ban advertising under the illusion it’s an issue that can be solved that simply, I’m not sure what the answer is.

Other little frustrations

I hesitate to list a series of small issues I have with the Guardian iPad edition because it could sound like relentless moaning. I love it, and these are simply a few things that make it seem slightly less good than it could be.

  • Guardian iPad edition - IssuesThe scrolling list of previous issues is a bit clunky. It’s nice to see all the covers but it feels like a hasty solution that will be refined over time.

  • There’s no date visible when looking at an article. It would add more clutter, but it does seem an odd omission.

  • At first I didn’t realise that the pages which show a full-screen image had a whole article beneath them. I thought they were promotional, in-house ads for an article that would appear later in that issue. It was a couple of days before I tried scrolling down… and found text! I suspect I am just an idiot.

  • I feel uncomfortable about the section front pages, and their relationship to the linearity of the rest of the reading experience. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the more free-form front pages seem oddly unrelated to the structure of the article pages behind them.

  • While I’ve resisted calls to add more fine-grained navigation to Today’s Guardian I must admit that I sometimes want it on the iPad edition. Trying to find a specific article buried within a long section is frustrating. And having no way to easily skip over a series of pages (say, Jazz music reviews) within a section can be tedious.

  • There’s no way to get the URL of an article, or click through to the article’s web version, except by, say, starting to email it and manually copying the URL out of the email. If I want to link to an article using a service other than those provided (Email, Twitter, Facebook and Instapaper) this is a needless complication.

  • I can’t copy any of the article text. Which makes it double-frustrating that I can’t easily get to an article’s website version. [This didn’t work in an earlier version of the iPad edition, but does now. Thanks]

  • I really like the ability to move from one article to the next (or previous) using the touchable area on the right and left, although it took me a few days before I noticed this, and could stop the tedious swiping. But that touchable space feels a bit small and “mean”, almost like an afterthought, and it’s easy to hit some of the links on the right by mistake.

  • 1.2%Finally, a bugbear of mine that’s followed me from the print version. The Guardian loves pulling out numbers from an article and displaying them in big type, in the style of a pull quote. When I first saw this (I think with the launch of the Berliner) I thought it’d disappear pretty quickly. And yet it still lives!

    It’s a single contextless number that on its own means nothing. Zero. You have to read the standard-size text next to the number to get anything from it, by which time you may as well have read the same information in the article itself. It feels as if it’s reaching for some kind of authoritative status as Information that illuminates the story. But, no. It’s just out-of-context, meaningless Data. Why would you want to make such a thing big enough to attract the reader’s eye? It would be so much better to use that space to add something to the story, not just pull out a random numeral: compare some data with a graph; show interesting numbers that aren’t in the article; show trends using something sparkliney.

Well done

That’s got those little annoyances of my chest, and I can get back to saying how pleased I am with the Guardian iPad edition generally. It’s good. I’m reading the “paper” almost every day for the first time in years, the only downside of which is that I’ve got less time to read anything else.

It’s quite an achievement to transfer the content of such a well-established format, with its own distinct character, into an entirely different form and media and have it still work so well.

If you want to read more about the iPad edition, here are a few articles from Guardian staff from around the time of the launch that are worth a read:

And there are of course posts written by readers. For balance:

Aside from that list of what I hope is constructive criticism in the middle there, it’s good to start the year writing about liking something.

Photos taken 3 Jan 2012

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I worked on a project with Hide&Seek, a website themed around the film ‘Dreams Of A Life’.

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