Here’s an important tech axiom: Developers have far more interest in applying application bells and whistles than people have in using them.
I learned this lesson on my first project out of college. In that project I designed a network of Apple 2′s to display wire wrap harness instructions for avionics assembly at General Dynamics. (Back then I was a software engineer with a couple of degrees in mathematics.)
People all around me were saying that “Apple offers color so this project needs to use it”. And, when I noted Apple’s spec that we lost half our resolution instantly, they responded with soft-logic theories that the increased information from color would make up for that loss.
But the spec wasn’t entirely honest. Once I decoded the Apple II display it turned out the spec was only accurate if we restricted ourselves to 3 colors (2 + black). But if we used 8, we would drop our horizontal resolution by 8 and vertical resolution by 4 to 16 times. (This rookie analysis apparently impressed my boss and we worked in green & black.)
More importantly, it was the right choice for the human equation we were working with. Wire harnesses for a cruise missile were assembled by people and required accurate connections for large bundles of wires. It goes without saying that making an interface that didn’t respect the workers just to apply the sexiness of color would have hurt product & reliability for…um… well…missiles tipped with powerful explosives (sometimes even nuclear).
Fast forward to the iPad. Throughout my career I’ve watched engineers struggle with this very same trade-off question (usually without the life & death implications). Now, magazine publishers are going right back over the same territory – this time with the iPad.
When released, there was a lot of hoo-hah about how cool magazines and illustrated books would be with the gadgetry available. (Spinning 3d models, integrated video, animated pages, etc.)
So I bought an iPad comic book. Found some neat wizardry. But when it came to enjoying what was on the virtual-page, the wizardry wasn’t a help. But then, I know I’m not really a comic book guy so I figured I might be missing something.
Always optimistic, I bought the first Wired magazine. Again, cool wizardy. And even better gizmo’s to impress my friends. But better readability? Not really. In fact, it was pretty hard to follow the articles with all these new options. When I wanted content, I got meaningless cool.
Apparently my experience is the norm — NOT the exception. Summarizing what, apparently, many magazine publishers have found, one publisher offers a carefully worded suggestion that the bells and whistles are a “secondary benefit” to consumers. Significantly, this reaction is the same for gadget magazine Popular Mechanics AND more human content magazine Good Housekeeping. (link here)
Taken literally this comment would imply: Write good content first. Add bells & whistles later.
But my suspicion is the better response is: Gizmo’s are only valuable to readers in exceptional circumstances. Otherwise, it’s all about content.
(To be fair, Martha Stewart’s empire claims that they’re finding their most sophisticated apps returning the best results. I’m not familiar with those apps, but can imagine that they aren’t trying to be magazines. Gizmo’s are a lot more useful in recipe books & how-to’s.)
Certainly, there will be exceptions. But I spent years in advanced technology companies. DEVELOPERS are the ones that want sexy gizmo’s. People only want them when they are the best way to get the value they want. (Being the best way for a developer to get their next job really isn’t enough.)
Incidentally, as a TV/video specialist, I feel the same way about video. Use TV and video when it’s important – when it is right for the job you have to do. Otherwise, use good photo’s, animation, and well written content. Browsing corporate websites, at most only 5% of online video has a valuable purpose. Most often, it’s video wallpaper which often inhibits consumer success on the website. (Ironically, the worst I saw last year were video’s create by YouTube to promote itself. YouTube may know a lot about hosting video, but it was – and may still be – clueless about using video as part of marketing.)
So guide your content work answering one critical question with honesty: Are the choices you’re making important to what the consumer is seeking from your iBook/iMagazine/website/app? If not, spend your money on something more valuable.
Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.
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