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Strategic insights
Navigating, Navigating, and More Navigating

Written by on July 12, 2013

British Railroad Modelling Magazine is out with a new iPad app. It's a big improvement over what they had before. Their old app was just the print magazine exported as PNGs and displayed in an app. That doesn't make for a good experience, and the much smaller iPad screen didn't make it easy to read either.

Now you can watch videos, see more images, get additional info, 360 degree views and lots more.

This is nice, but it also introduces the same old problem that we have seen with almost all magazines going digital. They replace the comfort of reading with the annoyance of navigating.

A print magazine is amazing because it allows people to focus almost entirely on the consuming the content. You can make yourself a great cup of tea, lean back and gently enjoy your time reading the articles and looking at the images.

You are only occasionally interrupted by having to flip the page, an action that is easy and mostly effortless. It's the same with books. When was the last time you even noticed how you navigated it?

But then when it comes the iPad app, this wonderful reading experience is replaced by navigating, navigating, more navigating, clicking, swiping, navigating, clicking, and even more navigating.

Every page requires that the reader acts in order to consume the content. Here is a page where the content is cramped into a tiny box. You have to swipe up with your finger for each paragraph of text that you want to read:

And here is one where you have to click on each part of the image to see what it's about:

Here is one where you have to swipe-in a side panel:

And you got to love this page: This one has hot spots that you have to click on, which then replace the text in a cramped text box that you have to scroll, combined with two side panels that you have to pull in and out.

You have to navigate 37 times just to read this one page.

There are two important reasons why this is bad.

First, we now live in the connected world, so if all I want to know is the technical details I would just visit the manufacturer's website. The reason I would buy this magazine is to get the story, the expertise and insights from the journalists and to feel the enthusiasm by people who loves this stuff.

But by reducing the iPad app to navigational widgets, that story disappears from the mix. It becomes a technical info app rather than an enjoyable magazine to read.

You don't feel inspired when you focus all your attention on navigation boxes and buttons. It turns into a form of activity, rather than a form of consumption.

Secondly, while this magazine looks very impressive to first time readers, after a very short while people are going to get very annoyed with it. It's not a comfortable experience.

Take a look at the web. We have been able to create websites this way ever since the web was first invented. But when you look at websites of the digital natives, not a single one of them would ever create an experience like this.

We have learned that navigation is a form of friction, and to be successful, you need reduce the amount of navigating to its bare minimal. Every single time you require people to navigate, you lose engagement and long term loyalty.

It's rare that I defend elements from print, but this is one of those examples where the print experience is far superior to what magazines do with their apps.

They are taking the worst elements of print, and combining it with the worst UI practice of the digital world. They take the concept of rigid and fixed layouts of print that you have to page through, and combine that with insane navigational UI overload.

The losers are the reader and the story.

Snow and Fire

The navigational overload that we see above is of course not limited to just this magazine. It's happening every time traditional magazines try to be digital. Like I wrote in "Rethinking the Perfect Media App", these traditional publishers are reinventing all the mistakes that we made on the web in the 1990s.

Of course, magazines are far from alone in this. Book publishers often make the same mistake when they think their solution to digital books is to make them overly interactive. They add so many fancy elements that you completely miss the story the book is supposed to tell.

And newspapers are doing it too. Both the New York Times and the Guardian decided to create special featured stories. The New York Times made "Snow Fall: The Avalanche of Tunnel Creek", and the Guardian made "Firestorm: The Holmes Family", and both are impressive multimedia features.

The New York Times story is somewhat enjoyable to read. It's fancy for sure, but they are limiting the navigational fanciness to only appear between sections and only when they make sense. They have added quite a few elements for the sake of animation, which do distract you from the story, but it's not that bad.

The Guardian, however, wanted to one-up the NYT in fanciness and went completely overboard in terms of navigational animated elements added to each page. Like the iPad app above, where you have to scroll to see each paragraph, the Guardian story is chopped up into tiny navigational units so that you only see one or two paragraphs at the time before you have to navigate again.

It's very fancy to look at, but I bet you never read the story. Instead, you spend all the time scrolling and admiring the navigational effect.

As a gimmick it's fun, exciting, and it creates a ton of exposure. In the Guardian's case, where they used this to launch the Guardian in Australia, it was a pretty good idea.

But it's completely useless as a long term approach to creating stories for your readers. After they have read 2 to 3 articles like this, they are so fed up by all the visual noise and the constant navigation that they simply leave and never return.

Note: And don't get me started on the cost and resources required to make these featured articles. Digital natives would never invest that much money on a single article.

For the long term, you want to have every single element focused on the story you tell. If you want to show five images as part of a longer story, don't add them as a fancy slideshow that people have to navigate. Just show them one after each other.

Use videos when they add to the story, not as a background behind the text. It's incredibly annoying to try to read a story while your eyes are constantly distracted by something that happens behind it.

Use interactive elements sparingly, and make them simple and easy to use, not fancy with heavy use of navigational elements. One light tap of a finger is better than ten.

This is the philosophy that I aimed for with my one-tap reading system on this site, which I wrote about in "Ebookifying a Website For Touch Based Devices". The idea is to minimize navigation to its absolute minimum while keeping the flexibility of the web (no paging).

If you are using a mobile device (smartphone or tablet), you can simply tap anywhere, and it will scroll down to the next part (try it now). This way you don't have to scroll because scrolling is annoying.

The point is to focus on the story first, and use all the extra features when they can enhance it. It's great that the British Railroad Modelling Magazine have added video. It's great that you have the ability to add more images, but never add 37 navigational touches to a page just to show people different parts of a picture. That's not what the digital world is about.

The digital world is about giving people much more with less. More awesomeness, with less hassle.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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