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Notes from Chicago: OR Magazine – interactive iPad magazines and user interaction

During the ACP/CMA convention in Chicago, I got to spend about 50 minutes with the students who developed OR Magazine as part of a class at the University of Oregon. The designers have now moved on to produce interactives for Flux Magazine.

For anyone producing student magazines or longform web publications, I’d encourage you to download the app and check it out. While the articles are laid out like traditional magazine articles, there are interactive elements in each one, ranging from video to touch/slide photo slideshows to interactive explanatory graphics.

It was hard to find fault with the overall graphic design of the product, so we talked quite a bit about user interaction, and that’s sort of the focus of this post.

I’m a big proponent of usability testing: getting some audience members to interact with your website/app/magazine/whatever and troubleshooting potential problems. Usability testing is especially critical for touch-screen media.

One reason for this is that people are developing new “habits” in terms of how they interact with content.

There is also this issue: People are still learning about tablets. By now, there’s a sizable user base of people who are familiar with navigating tablets. But there is also a sizable user base of people who have just got an iPad or Android tablet, and are still finding their way around.

Just a few points I’d like to emphasize here:

1) Don’t do touch interactives just because you can. Yes, it’s nice that you can touch a spot on the screen and it changes photographs. But make it worth my while as a user to click on that spot. Don’t give me one photo switch, for instance. If you do that, you’re training me to expect nothing but bells and whistles, no substance.

2) Don’t go too far off the UI path. Remember, people are still figuring out what works and how to use their tablet devices. Just as web sites developed the icons people are familiar with (the “play” button onYouTube and every other video site, for example), app designers are in the process of “training” users to recognize icons on their apps. As much as it might be a challenge, try to see what others are doing in the tablet UI field, what’s working and what’s not. If something’s become a de facto “standard,” maybe try to put your stamp on that instead of reinventing the language.

3) Remember the orientation. Tablets work in both landscape and portrait modes. Unless you’re going to set up your publication so that it only works in one orientation (which would be sort of silly), be sure to usability test in both orientation. Areas that might work in one orientation can act differently in the other, and might frustrate users who use certain portions of the screen.

4) Test, test, and test again. If you have a general purpose magazine tablet app, test that app with experienced users, newer users, and even people who’ve never used a tablet other than on a display at the Apple store. Find where the bugs are, what features they liked, and which navigation caused them to stumble. And then remove those barriers, squash those bugs, and beef up the interactives. And then test it again. Sometimes, when we fix one thing, we create another issue.

I would encourage anyone producing magazine style journalism to experiment with tablet presentation. It has unique challenges, but the format is a fertile field for long-form journalism. The OR Magazine was created using Adobe Creative Suite products like InDesign, so it’s not beyond your reach.

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