The Guardian’s immersive iPad app

Paradoxically, by removing much of what we consider essential for usable, navigable web sites, The Guardian’s iPad app has set a high benchmark for tablet publication usability.

I was sceptical at first. Why would a newspaper with an award winning website which already functions beautifully on a tablet screen need its own iPad app other than to try to summon up some extra revenue?  I assumed it would simply be a touch screen / tablet version of the website with a few extra frills, however The Guardian have shown a vision and ambition which I had not anticipated.

Rather like the device on which it runs, it has filled a gap which few of us previously knew was there.  It is not an iPad version of the website, it’s an iPad version of the paper itself, immersive and engaging in a way that I had been missing since I largely stopped buying print newspapers and relied on the web for my news.

With all the standard features of a good usable website stripped away leaving only beautifully presented content to browse in a near-linear method, it encourages you to sit back and to read.  I haven’t truly read the paper for a long time, instead I tend to scan feverishly, click click clicking my way from article to article, reading only the odd paragraph here or there.  I spend more time feeling irritated with the user comments below than engaging with the article itself.

It is a very clear and usable website and does its job extremely well but I realise now that it is not how I want to access this sort of information most of the time: there is a better way. Sometimes I feel time spent browsing news on the web could be better spent simply staring deep into the void.

There has been no flitting about listlessly from article to article on the app, however.  Instead, with it’s familiar and striking typography and simple structure divided up into the newspaper sections (each with a colourful and attractive home page) I’ve been spending most of my spare time over the last week sitting back reading the paper almost from cover to cover.  Not just my spare time either; I had hoped to write this review several days ago but time slipped away while enjoying using the app I was meant to be writing about.

Automatically downloaded in full (excepting multimedia content which requires a live web connection) at 6am every morning, it’s better than having a print edition delivered to your door: I don’t even have to get out of bed to pick it up.

Unlike so many print publications’ iPad apps, it manages to neither simply present on-screen what you see on the page, nor does it completely turn its back on the print format and try too hard to do something new, often getting bogged down in unintuitive navigation and gimmicky features which I suspect no one really wants in the process. Instead it just does very little more than deliver an easy-to-read newspaper in your lap and that’s precisely what I’d like. The temptation to go feature-crazy has been very smartly avoided.

I was intrigued by the process which had resulted in such an unexpected approach; for a very brief moment it seemed like a step backwards until I actually dived in to use it and realised the opposite was the case.

The user-journey is refreshingly simple:

  • Perhaps in most cases readers will start at page one and progress through to the end, skipping occasional individual articles or sections of less interest.
  • Readers can dive into a specific section and access individual articles from that section’s home page. However, since the home pages contain very few words (mainly titles, colours and images) they are more of an enticement to read their whole section than a flag for individual stories, I imagine most readers end up browsing through the sections in similar manner too.
  • A right-hand column offers links to related articles both within the downloaded issue and also to the website. Web links open in a browser window within the application. One click on the browser’s “Done” button and you’re instantly right back where you were in the paper.
  • No search – if you want to find something specific, use the website.
  • No categorisation nor a means to review a particular topical event – again, that’s easily done on the website.

We can see it is intended to stand as a very separate entity from the website, while fully complementing it.  It is so easy for organisations with multiple e-publishing outlets to accidentally blur the distinctions between them, but not in this case. Readers can use the website for everything websites are good for (locating specific information of interest quickly) and the iPad app when we want to immerse ourselves in the events of the moment, whatever they may be.  And when did I last do that on the web?

I asked Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, about their approach and intent:

“We did want to try for something very immersive. I think that’s one of the advantages of an app over a browser: it is more at the “newspaper” end of a spectrum that begins with a printed paper and ends with a reader discovering a single article through search.

“This was specifically designed to exploit the functionality and size of the ipad and its screen.  We learned as we went from the multiple ways in which non newspaper developers were creating interesting ways to use the operating system and user interface.”

The Guardian are currently offering a free trial which expires around mid-January; the very point in the year when I will have started to burn books for fuel and could do with a few newspapers lying around but I will certainly be continuing with a paid subscription.

There is also room for gradual future improvement too:  I’d love to see an option to save favourite articles and gradually build up my own best-of edition culled from newspapers past.  The advertisements are currently few in number yet too repetitive and while I’d rather have no advertising at all, after a week of use turning the page to see the same add for the 100th time is starting to grate a little for now.

The app is an absolute joy to use; a model of simple usability and attractive clarity.  The only thing which is currently unclear is how I will manage to read anything else now I’m reading The Guardian from virtual cover to virtual cover. All these ebooks won’t read themselves you know.

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