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iPad App Design: River of News vs. Twitter

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Back in July, I wrote an article rounding up some of the top RSS feed readers for the iPad (s aapl). Since posting, I’ve started using a new contender as my main RSS client: River of News, which is simple, elegant, and beautiful. In short, it’s everything that an iPad app should be. But Twitter is complex and powerful, everything an iPad app should be. Which has a better design?

When an app is launched on an iPad, it becomes the iPad, it encompasses the entire device. In the best case, the iPad then fades into the background, and the experience becomes focused entirely on the application. When an app fades into the background as well, the iPad becomes all about content.

River of News gives me a pop-up menu to choose a folder from Google Reader (s goog), and that’s all I see of the app. The rest of the experience is all about scrolling through and reading the latest feeds. No overbearing animation, no surprising interfaces: it’s just me and the morning news. River of News’ focus on text reminds me a lot of Instapaper, another favorite iPad app, which also foregrounds content, leaving navigation and menu items couched in pop-ups.

An alternative application design philosophy looks at what the iPad can do and uses its capabilities to push the functionality of applications further. My previous favorite RSS client, Reeder, fell into this category. Reeder re-imagines how to use multi-touch to navigate through stacks of unread feeds. Pinch out to open a stack of feeds, pinch in to close it. More recently, Twitter released their official iPad application, and like Reeder, it pushes the boundaries of what we expect an iPad app to be.

Twitter for iPad uses panels that can slide on top of each other to show links, replies, and information about the user. The panels can be successive, meaning that you can follow links endlessly, and wind up with a long history of panels behind what you can see on-screen. The interface is obviously very well thought out, and well planned. It’s a very different design philosophy from iPad applications like River of News because it focuses on functionality, not simplicity. When I started using the app, I really didn’t like it. However, after committing to using it for a week or so, and discovering how to navigate it, I find it growing on me quite a bit.

With Twitter for iPad, the gestures are swiping left and right, and tapping. When using River of News, the gestures are more limited. You swipe up to scroll, and articles are automatically loaded at the bottom and marked as read at the top. You can swipe left and right to load other folders, but personally I’ve never found a need for it.

You can also tap to select a folder of feeds if you wish, but I normally just wait a second or two for it to automatically load my unread feeds. The level of activity is different with River of News and Instapaper than it is with Reeder and Twitter for iPad. Not necessarily better or worse, though.

When I began researching this article, I wanted to show why taking the simplistic approach was better, and how trying to make an iPad app too functional would cause confusion. The truth, though, is that the app design philosophy that’s best will depend on usage preferences and the type of app you’re making. It also means there’s room for more than one app on each iPad designed to accomplish the same thing.

How do you feel about application functionality versus simplicity on the iPad? Should all applications fade into the background, or should they give you the choice to be what you want them to be? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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2 Responses to “iPad App Design: River of News vs. Twitter”

  1. I wasn’t convinces by the Twitter iPad app at first (like everyone else, it seems). Now I’ve given it a chance I have to say I think it’s one of the nicest UIs I’ve ever used. Given its functionality, I find it incredibly simple and intuitive to use. I think it uses the iPad’s features excellently without being gimmicky, and I think as the iPad slowly replaces laptops for more and more tasks, this is exactly the kind of app we need to be seeing more of.

    What I love about this app is the visual history. The panes show you where you’ve been. Surely better than a back button, a list, or nothing at all; especially when the might of Twitter lies in its massive network of simple information. It’s a tidy way to separate threads of information. The panes function as tabs or windows may on a desktop browser. And dismissing them to leave you with the main pane is always just a flick away (I love that icon, and the gesture and metaphor is consistent with the ingenious way to refresh). Composing a new message doesn’t clear what you were previously doing, but instead pushes it aside, ready for you to go back to for reference or once you’re finished.

    I strongly recommend anybody with an iPad who’s into Twitter to give this app a good test drive before giving up on it.

  2. I found Twitter for iPad very difficult: I couldn’t work out how to dismiss all the panels that I’d called and get back to the Twitter stream. I went straight back to Twitterific.

    But I really like your general message that there isn’t one correct way to design apps, something that bears repeating in the face of the dogma that everything on the iPad has to be minimalistic. And I certainly don’t think “the customer is always right”; it can be useful to adjust one’s own thinking to open up new possibilities. Perhaps you could go into a bit more detail about the specific things you learnt about the Twitter app that made it easier to use after your initial disorientation?