Skip to content

Recent Articles


Another Digital Publishing Is Possible

This week, News Corp announced that The Daily – the world’s first iPad-only newspaper – will shut down after less than 2 years and this has sparked a big debate on why The Daily failed and, more in general, why magazine apps suck.

Beyond the specific case, most existing iPad magazine apps suck because they offer essentially static content, they suck because they are far away from being interactive. Creating interactivity does not mean embedding some multimedia “bells and whistles”.

Most magazine apps suck because they are basically heavy PDFs with just some interactive elements. Almost all the solutions in the market are PDF-based systems such as Adobe’s DPS (clearly) or Mag+. The reasons are obvious. Publishing world is PDF-centric, people know how to use InDesign, and publishers want to reuse the knowledge and the investment done. So the solution is to create interactive PDF files with InDesign (adding some Flash-like interactivity on the top of the standard format) and to pay for a service that packages them into a bundle suited for distribution through iPad (or to pay for a commercial library for PDF-rendering). Understandable budget reasons (I, too, have developed an app of this category). But in this world a magazine app is a PDF reader.

Another digital publishing world is possible. And just to be clear, not a HTML5-based world where a magazine app is a browser. A magazine app makes sense if it’s a true native app, if it adds value to the user experience in terms of usability and functionality, takes advantage of the capabilities of the device, and makes a clean break from the incumbents.

Many have commented that The Magazine is the model to follow, and it is evident. Everything becomes immediately obvious when you see it. It is certainly the best example of how to distribute publications via Apple’s Newsstand, it is intuitive and immediate, but memorable editorials can not be the only lever to succeed in all situations. When I think of an iPad magazine app, I think of something like an iBook textbook, or an interactive children’s storybook, for magazine publishing. Truly interactive publications with diagrams that readers can rotate and pan-and-zoom, with photo galleries, videos, maps. A magazine should bring articles to life. Readers should be able to truly interact with the magazine, manipulate objects with their fingertips, search for content, highlight text. Magazines should take advantage of the fact that they are always connected to the web, for example with newspaper-specific modules that support polls, comments, photo sharing.

Science fiction? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple releases a sort of Newsstand Author. Or allowing the download of XIBs? Or what? Well. When I think of this, I don’t think ad hoc iOS apps, but a framework in which an issue is a bundle of resource files and metadata and the app is a sort of runtime environment that dynamically renders magazine issues delivered via Newsstand. XUL? XAML? Something like that. But there is no need to define a new protocol, the rendering instructions can be expressed in HTML (or its subset). In this way you can have truly native experiences, but also issues easy to produce, and portability. Time to start-up?

What do you think about it? Any opinion or feedback from you are welcome.


The Tenth Heuristic

Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics are probably the most-used heuristics for user interface design. These are ten well known principles, but I want to concentrate on just one of them.

Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

It is the last general principle of the “decalogue”. Probably the least important because it’s preferable that a system is so easy to use that no further help is needed to supplement the user interface itself. But this goal cannot always be met. Some users will want to become “experts” rather than casual users, and some intermediate users need reminding to perform their objectives.

It’s important to highlight that:

  • help is not a replacement for a bad design, the presence of help and documentation doesn’t reduce the usability requirements,
  • a help system must be well designed as well.

There are various types of help systems you can provide, but it is always better to use minimal instructions. Nobody read the manual. The help will only be used when the user are in some kind of difficulty, in need of immediate help.

What should not be done (especially in a mobile app)

  • A single very long file that lumps everything together. Users will lose focus by scrolling up and down (especially on a mobile device).
  • Don’t provide too much information. Users who come to help pages are usually already confused, so they aren’t inclined to read long blocks of text.
  • As an embedded web page. It is a common temptation. It takes 5 minutes to place a web view that loads a HTML file. And it also allows to provide a fast text formatting.

I know something about it, here’s how the help section on FreakyAlarm looked like:


The correct way

  • Task-oriented help. A minimal manual focused on real tasks to get started doing real work.
  • Gather the right questions and write clear topics that answer users’ questions.
  • Good scanning aids (such as bolding keywords) to increase readability.
  • Good user experience with native user interfaces, easy to navigate, easy to read.

For example, as in the last update 1.7:


Don’t Hide Features in the Settings

Nerdy users see settings everywhere.
Users never look in the settings.

Problem 1
Software is designed and implemented by nerds, so they have an innate tendency to put settings anywhere. And even if they try to fight their nature, they are also often surrounded by nerdy friends and colleagues that encourage them to add more settings.
Close encounters with members of the second category are very rare. Usability testing is often neglected due to its relatively high demand in time and resources, and the user experience is often evaluated by nerdy friends and colleagues.

Problem 2
Software engineers live in a statistically not significant sample set that doesn’t reflect the actual distribution of world population.
Nerdy users: ~0.1%
Users: ~99.9%

Don’t hide features in the settings. People should be able to find all the available features in your app1. Avoid providing access to features only in toolbars or under separate tabs. Features should be zero configuration out of the box. Avoid enabling features only via configuration options or switches. Features should always be available within two-three taps. Do not be surprised if you receive a feature request to add a new functionality that you’ve already implemented in the settings. People never look in the settings section, they see it as an engine room that says “do not touch”.

Don’t hide features in the settings. Provide “under the hood” options for advanced users, and they all lived happily ever after.


Some thoughts on WWDC (and) 2012

I’d like to share a few thoughts on Apple’s WWDC 2012 announcements. I think we can finally say that iOS 6 is evolutionary and Apple takes care of its entire ecosystem.

iOS 6
Evolutionary, not revolutionary. The sixth generation of Apple’s mobile operating system represents an enhanced major release. The improvements are evident in the eyes of the users that will notice new features, new useful options and pixel-perfect finishing touches that are the result of an obsessive attention to detail. The improvements are evident in the eyes of the developers that will finds a ton of awesome APIs (currently under NDA) that they’ll definitely want to start using in their apps.
And requests like Siri support and Notification Center widgets for third-party apps? Inter-app communication? Multitasking rethink? Home screen redesign? Not yet. Apple is focusing on polishing the experience as we know it and creating a mature ecosystem.

Until two years ago, it seemed that Apple had forgotten Mac OS X, but in reality was just concentrated on building a strong breakthrough mobile platform for the post-PC era. Apple is not losing interest in the Mac platform, but plans to strengthen its ecosystem all together (iOS, OS X and iCloud). A year ago at WWDC 2011, Steve Jobs presented iOS 5 (a huge improvement), Lion (the iOS-ification of OS X) and introduced iCloud (the key element of the ecosystem evolution). In 2012 Apple unveiled Mountain Lion (the unification of iOS and OS X) and announced annual OS X release cadence, just like iOS. Today we see an iCloud-ification of both platforms.

So what? In 2012, the challenge is not to build the most advanced mobile or desktop operating system, but the most advanced ecosystem. Hardware, software and services have never been as integrated as they are today. Amazon and Samsung are creating their own ecosystem on top of Android. Microsoft is behind in the mobile OS market, but its desktop OS still remains the standard for PCs and is preparing the tablet-laptop convergence with the upcoming Windows 8. The post-PC era has just begun, the tablet (the very real Post-PC device) market is just beginning to take off and will be huge, the ecosystem war is under way.


Monti’s Crowdsourcing Campaign to Cut Wasteful Spending

The policy of rigor and transparency of Monti government has forced the Italians to make many sacrifices. After a few months, however, the Italian Prime Minister realized that an important area remained free of any cuts: public expenditure.

Italian public spending can be compared to a Swiss cheese: full of holes. We are accustomed to deplorable examples of wasteful expenditure such as unnecessary services, abandoned buildings, unemployed resources, invented jobs for relatives and so on.

The new government could no longer remain indifferent to all that is going on, especially in this period of recession. Whether for reasons of necessity, or to calm down an irritated public opinion, Monti has ordered a review of government spending and the operation will be supervised by a new commissioner, Enrico Bondi, who is known for restructuring severely indebted enterprises like Parmalat.

To help this process of spending review, Mario Monti solicited input from the public through the government’s website by asking citizens to highlight waste of public money of which they are aware. Anyone can send recommendations to the government staff through the official website and now through an app for iPhone, “Dillo A Monti” (Tell Monti). The app (designed by Enrico Angelini and Gabriele Di Lorenzo and freely available on iTunes App Store) allows users to send a “letter” to Monti and consult known examples of waste.

The numbers speak for themselves: over 130,000 ideas submitted. This shows how Italians are willing to collaborate and have taken to heart this campaign, and mainly, how crowdsourcing can be useful.

Written by Gloria Lattanzi


Italian Open Data Is Not So Open

Open data is more than just transparency, open data is not just the latest buzzword, but the most democratic and meritocratic business opportunity. In many countries open data has turned into an effective anti-crisis measure because information freely available to everyone can become the raw material for the production of services for the digital world. Public information is like gold for makers. If governments provide open data then anyone who has an innovative idea can try to develop it and build a business model around it.

Even Italy has awoken, and AppsForItaly – the Italian Open Data competition – is the proof of this. Apps4Italy is a competition open to European citizens, associations, developer communities and firms willing to develop innovative applications based on the re-use of datasets published by Public Sector bodies and capable of showing how relevant is the economic and social potential of public information.

@tweelog and I have decided to participate with an engaging mobile application to allow citizens to have a concrete idea of the costs of the “Auto Blu” (government cars used for official business). It’s a hot issue in the Italian public opinion because represents the symbol of government waste and privilege politics. In 2011 Formez PA has conducted a nationwide survey on behalf of the Ministry of Public Administration to make a census of the car fleet and the data has been explicitly published as Open Data.

✓ Idea
✓ Data
We started working on the idea, defining the screen flow, making mockups, but then we realized (naively too late) that the CSV file of the open data does not include all the information that you can find on the web page where you can do a search among the public bodies which participated in the monitoring and view the responses of the questionnaire. The CSV file contains only a subset of these responses. Some missing information, as address, can be derived while others not so much, as the number of km driven per year. The latter is an essential piece of information that allows to weigh the value of the annual expense necessary for the maintenance of the cars. They provide a data source on the “Auto Blu” expenses without conveying one of the two key elements to evaluate them. What’s the meaning of this? So what’s this for?

I wrote an email to Formez PA and had a response:

Sorry, but it’s not possible at the moment to update the CSV file that, as you rightly note, does not contain all the data collected from the monitoring

Open data? You’re doing it wrong.
Just putting some data online is not enough, data must be significant, reliable and regularly updated.

This website uses cookies to offer you the best experience online. By continuing to use our website, you agree to the use of cookies. | Close