|Publishers continue to experiment with ways to turn touch-screen functionality into a better user experience for their tablet editions.
As a whole, the magazines reviewed speak well to the progress publishers have made in the tablet space in a relatively short amount of time. Here's an overview of the functionality that's defining a new generation of digital publications.
The last couple of weeks were immersed in 10 consumer magazines running on a Kindle Fire tablet: eight Condé Nast titles (Condé Nast Traveler, Glamour, Golf Digest, GQ, Self, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired), Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated, and Reader's Digest. The Condé titles and Reader's Digest were developed with Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite. (Disclosure: Adobe provided the Kindle as a loaner to review these publications.) The Sports Illustrated app was created by Time Inc. and the Wonderfactory.
Adobe has been aggressively positioning its Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) as a seamless and sophisticated platform for print publishers looking to produce high-quality digital editions. Earlier this month, the company announced that more than 16 million DPS-based digital publications had been downloaded over the past year.
Condé has taken a more-is-more approach to navigation with its digital publications. Any given page offers a choice of vertical swiping/ scrolling (to page through an article) and lateral swiping (to advance to the next editorial asset or ad). That's in addition to the multiple navigation options accessible by tapping on the page, including a back button, a horizontal "scrubber" bar on the bottom of each page, a top horizontal "browser" index on the top of each page, and a drop-down TOC. Phew!
The vertical swipe can take you through one page or multiple pages. For longer features, the vertical swipe can seem endless, especially on the 7-inch Kindle screen.
Vertical scrolling is not on option in Sports Illustrated, which follows a more traditional right-to-left swipe to advance to the next page. SI does, however, enable vertical text scrolling within a page - the text scrolls while the headline, images and other layout elements remain static.
Different navigation conventions - within and across different publications - could pose a long-term challenge for publishers. In a recent GfK MRI survey, 72 per cent of tablet users said they prefer that their digital editions follow the same format. We're likely a long way from industry standards, which most likely will develop organically as publishers experiment with different methods.
For now, we seem destined to be stuck with "how to use this app" guides - which media execs like Hearst Magazines' Chris Wilkes see as a real problem. "No one wants a manual to figure out how to read a magazine," Wilkes said at the recent SXSW Interactive conference. "We have to do a better job of embracing common best practices."
Best use of sub-navigation: Sidebars in GQ and Vanity Fair include their own slider so you don't need to leave the main feature to read even a longer sidebar.
Buttons and icons
A key feature of Adobe's DPS is its support for interactive overlays. Condé's digital edition designers make good use of this feature. For example, layered image galleries - accessed through a "tap to see more" icon that cycles through images - can be used for virtually any type of multi-part content. Each tap surfaces a different overlay, providing a sense of interactivity without leaving the page.
All the publications utilised overlays for photo or image captions - allowing room for longer captions without eating into the image size. This capability is critical for a 7-inch tablet.
Examples of successful overlay treatments included a collection of Saul Bass movie posters (Reader's Digest), Mitt Romney's financial ledger at Bain (Vanity Fair), fashion tips (GQ), exercise routines (Self), photo shoots (Glamour), an 11-question poll (Vanity Fair) and any number of improve-your-game golf tips from Golf Digest (do's and don'ts with your golf swing, positioning the ball in your stance, 4 steps of a particular type of golf shot, etc.).
Worth noting: Recipes in Self magazine lets users "mark off" each ingredient or step in the preparation process (the text is grayed out).
Social sharing tools
It's clear that publishers are still figuring out the best way to integrate social toolbars and buttons. Vanity Fair, for example, provided Facebook, Twitter and email buttons for most of its features - but on the first page, not the last. Placement on the first page may make sense for a website, where it's easy to control/home to the top of an article, but after swiping through a multi-page feature you're not likely to retrace your steps all the way to the front just to tweet about it. Other publications - even Reader's Digest - included share buttons at the end of some articles, but not all of them.
Best use of social is a three-way tie: Glamour includes a Twitter follow button in its Editor's Letter; Vanity Fair includes a real-time Twitter feed in its Letters section; and Sports Illustrated features live Twitter feeds from each of the models in its Swimsuit Issue. OK, it's not a tie - SI clearly wins.
Audio and video
Publishers' use of audio and video was surprisingly understated. No in-your-face bells and whistles in any of these editions. In a few of the publications, like Vanity Fair, I was actually disappointed that there wasn't more video accompanying the features.
Best use of video probably goes to Golf Digest, which featured an opening clip of long-drive champion golfer Jamie Sadlowski's swing, shot in High Definition at 2,300 frames per second. That's a big step up from a gatefold sequence the magazine ran of the same golfer back in 2009.
Audio examples included an expected dose of voice-overs and background interviews. One unique treatment was from Condé Nast Traveler, which included audio of soothing sounds in a feature on places that have remained relatively untouched by human noise.
An engaging experience
The Kindle Fire magazine experience has plenty of room for improvement. In particular, the tap interface has plenty of kinks to work out - there's nothing more demoralizing than endlessly tapping on a button or icon with no response. In addition, videos were the only assets in these publications that were viewable in landscape mode on the Kindle tablet, with the exception of one or two display ads.
All in all, however, the publications reviewed were highly engaging. This is partly attributable to the novelty of exploring a new medium. But the digital enhancements really do bring a reader more deeply into an article or an entire publication. "Lean back" clichés aside, reading a digital magazine on a tablet is a far different - and far more enjoyable - experience than browsing a website or flipping through the pages of a print magazine.