UX breakdown: A look at The Daily

With the much hyped and anticipated launch of Rupert Murdoch’s foray into an iPad newspaper, The Daily, I downloaded the app to take a look at the overall user experience within the application.  Trying to ignore the much complained about bugs, crashes and long loading times (you can see a long string of complaints on Twitter #thedaily) I focused on outlining the key interactions available in application, and trying to understand the solution that has been developed.

It’s still a linear world

One of the biggest challenges of presenting a newspaper as an iPad application is its navigation design – how does a user traverse your articles? Is it easy for them to know where they are, where they have been, and find where they want to go next?


When electronic devices such as the iPad and Kindle are used to consume content that we’re so used to seeing in a physical format, we do lose the benefits of tactile sensation. With physical books and newspapers, navigation is in some ways much easier – you physically know where you are in the book or newspaper, you can jump to sections you’re interested in, you can physically dog-ear or mark pages of interest. Cognitively, it’s also much easier to remember where you were last, as well as how to get there (you remember seeing the article somewhere near the start, or perhaps you know the sports section is right up the back).


It’s particularly interesting that The Daily have decided to maintain this concept of a ‘linear’ newspaper – in fact taking it as far as mapping their top level news categories linearly, with a defined sequence of articles that appear in the “beginning” and at the “end”.




This works well in alignment with their concept of the “Carousel” (also the application’s entry point)- which provides a high level visual view of their articles that can be automatically or manually traversed.

Two main modes

The Daily uses two main modes – A high level “carousel” and the detailed “article view”.  This notion is heavily supported by the “flip” concept commonly used in iPad applications – the animation is key in cognitively supporting the movement between the two modes.


In general, the overall premise of two modes keeps things simple – either I’m in a browse frame of mind, perusing what’s available in the edition, or delving into the detail of a specific article.

The Carousel

The concept of a high level browse is something that translates well in the digital world, and the carousel is something we’ve been seeing increasingly used in the online space.  The Daily’s carousel follows the same notion of people flicking through pages of a magazine or newspaper glancing at headlines before an article catches their eye.


The diagram below outlines the key functions in the Carousel mode:




An unexpected behaviour is the category selection displayed at the bottom, of which my immediate expectation was to navigate to, or filter to articles in that specific category.  Selection of this function does scroll the carousel to the beginning of the section, but it assumes that the user wants to enter into article view for the section and immediately launches the section.  This is an interesting choice of behaviour – not one I altogether dislike, but definitely an unexpected one.


Attempts at a “leanback” experience

What I think is most interesting in this mode is the attempt to create a leanback experience using the automated slideshow.  The concept of lean back experiences versus lean forward experiences is strongly derived from the TV world, where the “ten-foot” experience greatly contributes to the difficulties of interacting with content on screen, and in many cases people are used to a leanback experience.  I question how appropriate this function really is in this application – sure, it does give a sense of the interactive capabilities of the app itself, and it may even entice you to interact with it – and of course, it looks sexy. But given that the iPad is very much a “lean forward”, one to one and directed experience, I wonder how many people actually would let the carousel automatically play.


A few hidden functions

A function hidden within the control panel is the TV function – selecting this option plays back a short newsreader style presentation of the main stories in the edition with a “press for more” function that links in to the article being mentioned.




Though the general concept is interesting, I found it’s placement within the Carousel to be odd — it almost implies a relationship to the article in which it appears over, and/or to the category being viewed (which was my initial expectation), and this leads me to think that it may have been a bit of an afterthought.  Further, any interaction with the carousel (even accidental touch) boots you out of the video.


The second function that’s quite interesting and also hidden within the control panel is the text to speech function.  Though the icon delivering this function (headphones) isn’t altogether clear when you select it, this function jumps to an article and starts to read it out aloud. It is a rather confusing function to figure out however – I’m not completely certain if all articles are available in this mode, or only a subset. I got quite lost using it – it does not seem to allow you to navigate to an article of choice. It takes awhile to load, and with no progress indicator, its hard to tell if its still thinking about whether it can read the article, or whether there just isn’t any audio available for the article.


Its location close to the slideshow functions of auto-play (whose icon >> is again confusing!) and shuffle also adds to the confusion. And further, it seems to be a function only accessible in the Carousel mode, which altogether feels a little odd.

Article View

Once a user has selected an article of interest, they are taken to the article view mode.  Most articles generally display in a portrait or landscape mode, and a user generally swipes to move through an article, or continue onto the next article, much like swiping your way through pages of a newspaper.




Tieing in the “linear”

There’s a strong tie in to the linear notion of the newspaper.  In many ways, this does work well in terms of always giving the user an understanding of where they are in the edition, and in turn, as a user, you don’t generally feel “lost”.  The visual browser is a key function in supporting this notion – it also allows a user to quickly navigate to a section or article using a visual thumbnail and its position in the linear format as cues.




Removing the “back”

In simplifying the interactions in the article view to one following a linear format, one of the most interesting and bold decisions in the interaction model is removing the concept of “back”.  There’s a strong case for maintaining a “back” button, in particular the fact that many users are conditioned to the idea of going “back” from their web browsers.  Back offers an escape route when users end up in a place they didn’t intend to go.


Here’s a specific example of how it’s used in the app:




I’m not yet 100% convinced that they’ve been successful in doing so, as it’s definitely a difficult behaviour to break from the user.  But given that The Daily (atleast the edition I’m reading today) uses internal linking between articles quite sparingly (mainly on section title pages), it limits the confusion.


Mixing orientations

One of the more confusing aspects of the application is the use of orientation, which is not always consistent (though clearly marked where it is different).  The majority of articles are a simple one for one view when moving between orientations, where the content and layout remain somewhat consistent.


However in some areas, orientation is used to display a different view.  The particular example is use of the landscape mode for displaying a related slideshow of photos.  Though it sounds OK in theory, the confusion lies in the fact that once a user has traversed the slideshow of photos and return to portrait mode to read the accompanying story, they are not returned to the place in which they launched the slideshow from, but rather, the corresponding page in the article the image is shown.  This is a sometimes a considerable jump from where you were originally, as shown in the example below and a little bit disorientating:




In some other cases, the orientation provides access to different content altogether.  Again, though it’s clearly marked that you can rotate to access the feature, you can easily miss it if you’re browsing in one orientation.


Sharing options




Sharing provides access to posting and viewing article comments, as well as the ability to share a web version of the article using Facebook, Twitter and Email.  My only comment is that visually, post to Facebook, Twitter and Email look like tabs rather than direct calls to action.


But perhaps the most strangely grouped feature in the “Share” overlay is the “save for later” feature, whose icon looks too close to an attachments icon – it took me awhile to put two and two together. In addition to the strange placement, it seems strange that you can only save an article for later in the Article view, and not in the high level carousel mode. Furthermore, you can then only access your saved pages in the Carousel view and not the Article view.


A few niceties

Article view also has a few nice, but very obvious applications of inline interactive media, such as:

  • Inline video for articles
  • Animated graphics, such as infographics
  • Inline twitter stream
  • Inline polls and graphs
  • Small interactive pieces (touch for more info, etc)
  • Interactive advertisments

They really haven’t pushed the boundaries much in this area, in my opinion – and I’m curious as to the possibilities if they were to take these further.

General thoughts

Though admittedly I haven’t spend long periods of time using the application, a few thoughts immediately spring to mind.


Single tap to turn

One key behaviour learnt from other great RSS reader applications on iPad is that swipe, though fancy and sexy, and an expected behaviour, gets old fast.  It’s also not a very appropriate motion when holding your iPad in a single hand on a crowded train in portrait.  Most reading applications offer a single tap for page turning, something that’s missing from The Daily.


Personalisation

Increasingly people seek personalised content.  Even with traditional newspapers, people are typically only interested in one or two sections and will pull these out and read only these sections.  It amazes me that these media services continually overlook this user requirement and very obvious need for personalised content.  It then brings to mind how they will compete against RSS readers, which (though admittedly a tech savvy concept), deliver a personalised stream of news to a user that’s ad free. Many applications on the iPad also deliver these stories in formats akin to a newspaper, or in a highly appealing visual format (e.g. Pulse).


Page by Page by Page…

Another aspect I still find very interesting that there’s still, in “magazine” and “newspaper” iPad deliveries, a very strong tie to “pages” – and The Daily sticks true to this concept.  Perhaps its a necessary paradigm to continue, given that we’re all in a bit of a transition from traditional forms of media to digital formats. It definitely helps orient a user to what they are consuming on the device, but I have a sense that as generations grow up with these devices quite second nature, this paradigm will slowly start to disappear.


So, have you tried The Daily app yet? What do you think, and how do you think it compares to other magazine and newspaper iPad applications?