Monday, May 17, 2010

Pixel Mag's Pottery Barn app shows the dangers of developing your own iPad navigation language

Rarely do I call out a developer for a less than stellar mobile media app, but a month ago I did just that when Pixel Mags released its app for Pottery Barn. At the time I called the app "an absolute mess" and did the best I could to change the subject by talking about custom publishing and why it was an amazing accomplishment for an app developer to get Pottery Barn to work with them (and how publishers should wake up to the threat from developers).

That same day the founder of Pixel Mags contacted me and said we should talk. I agreed but he never called.
Now it is a month later and I received an e-mail informing me that the new edition of the Pottery Barn catalog is available. I reloaded the app and took a look -- and yes, it is significantly better.

But I'm afraid the reviews in iTunes will continue to be negative (right now there are 17 one-star reviews of the new edition, and only two five-star reviews) simply because the app gives users a method of navigation different than what the native Apple apps use.

When you open the app for the first time a window appears that gives some instructions for navigation. Users ignore this dialogue box at their peril!

Page turning: The new catalog/app gives readers two ways to turn a page. If you tap on the lower right hand corner the pages turn smoothly and elegantly -- its fantastic. But if you swipe the page -- the way you would in a Zinio app, for instance -- the app freezes up and the page eventually turns haltingly. My app crashed the first time I tried to swipe a page.

Zooming: you simply can not zoom the way you are used to. You can pinch all you want and nothing will happen. But if you double tap the page the app zooms in immediately. Then suddenly the multi-touch zooming works like a charm.

In other words, Pixel Mags appears to have created its own iPad navigation language. Guess what? It works -- the app is a vast improvement over the initial catalog. But I fear many users will continue to down rate the app.

One criticism I had of the Pottery Barn app was that it contained no interactivity, no additional content (I guess that is two criticisms, isn't it?). Looking back at my original story I realize that in an effort to try and not be completely negative I edited out these thoughts. But now, here we are a month later and things are pretty much the same.

Too bad. I think catalogs could working wonderfully on a tablet.

Here is what I'd like to see incorporated into a tablet catalog: in-app purchasing, additional photographs of the merchandise, video, the ability to change the color of the product.  All these seem self-explanatory.

Tablet catalogs can save the merchant thousands in printing and mailing -- but the apps have to be better than the print catalog. Otherwise, what's the point? With a print catalog I can rip out pages, take it to the phone when ordering, etc. The current Pottery Barn iPad catalog doesn't even give you a link to the company's website as a minimal assistance to concluding a sale.

Who will be the Galloping Gourmet of the iPad? →

One reason the Pottery Barn app immediately caught my attention is that I am a customer of both Pottery Barn and its parent Williams-Sonoma. When I worked at an online video company a few years ago I contacted Williams-Sonoma about the idea of incorporating online video into their website. I thought the idea having cooking demonstrations videos, using the cookware and food products they offered, would be a great way to increase sales. They weren't interested. Now we have the iPad and its ability to incorporate embedded video and the like. (This morning I posted a story on the new Financial Times app which does a great job with video.)

I guarantee you that eventually a retailer will realize the potential of the iPad in the area of catalog creation. It's only been a month so one shouldn't get too impatient, right?

What is the lesson for publishers and others who want to see their publications or products on the iPad? I think it is that one should get as familiar with the device as possible so they can be a better partner with their developers. Knowing how the end user reads using a tablet will be important when designing not only the product itself -- layouts, sections and the like -- but also when considering the user interface.

Back before the introduction of the iPad, Bonnier posted a video to YouTube in which it's design partner BERG talked about the user experience on a then hypothetical tablet reader. Now, a month and a half after the launch of the iPad, designers and developers can work with actual tablets, test their own apps, as well as those of other developers. Publisher, too, need to be familiar with both the device itself, as well as how other publisher are using it to publish their products if they are going to avoid the problems currently being seen in many of the current crop of apps.