Famous tech/web blog Mashable to me is like morning coffee. Well, and like lunch coffee, afternoon coffee and night coffee: I couldn’t go without it. The new Mashable iPad-App, however, feels more like doing tax reports to me. It makes me unhappy and I try to avoid it. Being a creative strategist and a product manager, I’ll try not to let this turn into a rant against Mashable (I actually love you guys), but an impartial, down-to-earth assessment of the shortcomings of the app. Also, I think, this is a good learning example about how how to assess basic user experience necessities and avoid mistakes when it comes to designing your own apps.
So, what’s actually wrong with the app? The user experience is a Fail. Not an epic one but a Fail anyway. The reasons for this are what I’ll for now call ‘false user experience futurism’ and ‘ugly monetization’. Follow me for the low-down.
‘False User Experience Futurism’
I think most of you, even if you are not a user experience (UX) specialist, know the basic principle ‘form follows function’. Design should get out of the way of the user, not block it. That doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty. Some good examples for great design that’s pretty but gets out of the way of the user are the iPad apps by Facebook, Skype and Twitter.
Twitter’s iPad app must have been the one Pete Cashmore had in mind when he thought about a look and feel for the Mashable-app for iPad. Twitter’s app applies the contemporary design paradigm of multiple vertical collumns. The idea: keep the menu always visible for orientation purposes and use the main column to display the most important information. The third (and sometimes optional) column can be used to dive deeper into details of what you selected or display additional information like social stuff.
This design principle is often used in combination with gesture navigation. Tablets like the iPad are perfectly suited for gesture navigation. The Facebook App is a good example: Instead of forcing me to hit a small button in the top left corner, I can now swipe away Web Pages displayed in the app’s own browser with a simple gesture from left to right to return to my news feed. Still, Facebook keeps the buttons in place, too. Let’s keep this in mind for later.
It’s absolutely understandable that Mashable and their app design company of choice, Code and Theory, utilize these two design patterns. Their problem is over-using them, trying to be uber-fancy. If you hold your iPad in portrait mode, there a two to three columns visible, depending on your point of navigation. Holding it in landscape mode reveals four columns, all visible at the same time. What happens when you try to fit too many columns into too little screen width? They get squeezed together so bad that they become uncomfortable to read.
There’s a general downside to the multiple columns design paradigm: While, for example, you’re reading an article, you don’t actually need to view any column but the one the article is displayed in. If executed correctly, the main column is therefore prominently positioned and has a width and graphical design that identify it as the dominant column without urging the user to think, therefore passively navigating his field of view into the correct area of the app. If executed incorrectly, the eye can’t help but wander around, which makes for an uncomfortable reading experience.
Mashable’s iPad app supersizes this problem by enabling the user to resize and move columns around via swipes. None of it’s architectural structures are of the right size or even constant in size and position, which leads to confusion and a bad user experience. Plus: The grand of all swipe commands cannot be replicated by using on-screen buttons – a decision which excludes less tech-savvy users from being able to navigate easily.
The generation of cash through display ads is one of the most important revenue streams for online magazines and blogs such as Mashable. It’s widely accepted by users, too. After all, it prevents the use of a paywall and lets users enjoy free, original content. Some sites have even found innovative ways to utilize the vast and unique features of the online medium to make ads a fun, engaging experience, like Wired and AllThingsD. Tablet magazines even tend to go a step further, using more and more highly engaging interactive ads which provide actual value to the users. Since engagement is the way to go in marketing nowadays, you’d think every advertising space provider should agree and act accordingly, right? Read on.
Mashable’s iPad App feels like good idea, but is executed like a bad example an experienced UX designer would show to his students to show them the way it’s not done. It is fancy as hell, but the usability suffers big time from some of the design decisions.
Some of you might be old enough to remember 90’s internet advertising. We saw the rise of the pop-up, the most disturbing, blocking, hate-inducing form of online advertising ever. A second browser window opened in front of the one we were focused on, thus blocking away content. In the 2000s, pop-up ads moved into the browser tab as HTML or Flash overlays, which were still no better than their ancestors. The problem with these ads: instead of evoking user engagement, they disturb users, leading to aversions.
Why do I explain this in such depth? Because no reasonable website owner today uses pop-ups anymore. Mashable.com is no exception. Its iPad app, though, is. It shows two alternating kinds of blocker ads: one that shows up instead of the article and – in landscape mode – the social third column, preventing you to read the article you just clicked until you click it again, and an even worse one which is actually popping up, blocking the whole screen with a blank window, showing nothing but some irrelevant google text ads in the upper left corner. The latter blocker ad even forces you to wait until it has loaded and to click an X to close it before you can continue your reading experience.
The worst part: Mashable’s iPad App shows these blocker ads on average before every second article you click.
If pop-up ads are a huge user experience fail and even bad for advertisers, why does Mashable’s iPad App force ads in the way of the user? And why does it even overdo the ad display frequency? The explanation which seems most obvious is monetization. A monetization strategy, which could cost Pete Cashmore a lot of money by offending his users, as reviews in the App Store show.
There must be some very smart people with some very good ideas behind this app. The execution, however, sucks. Mashable has to face some pretty tough questions now: Have they priorized capitalization over user experience? Has there been enough usability testing or is this a good example of the calculated ‘banana principle’?
Mashable, one of my favorite tech sites in the world, is all about exploring the latest and greatest. Let’s hope it soon invests some serious effort in order to make its latest iPad app its greatest, too.