Whether you call it “shovelware” or use fancier words like “skeuomorphic,” there’s a pretty clear preference on the part of many publishers for creating an online or mobile experience that looks as much as possible like the physical magazine or newspaper it is intended to replace — something Apple reinforces with its Newsstand platform, which has virtual shelves with tiny virtual magazine covers and newspaper front pages. This kind of “paving the cowpath” approach is not surprising, but is it the best way to either publish or consume content? In many (perhaps even most) cases, it isn’t. Which is why some of the most interesting experiments in online content are coming from those who are not just thinking outside of the box, but aren’t even willing to admit that there is a box.
One approach that has gotten a lot of attention, in part because it comes from former Tumblr designer and Instapaper founder Marco Arment, is an online and mobile magazine called simply The Magazine, which launched earlier this month. The simplicity of the name is reflected in the platform itself: Arment’s digital magazine, which is focused on long-form essays about technology and culture, has virtually none of the elements that we’ve come to associate with online or virtual magazines — it has no masthead or sidebars or boxes with interactive ads, no table of contents or sharing buttons or drop-down menus. In fact, it has virtually nothing but words and links (and some cool hyperlinked footnotes).
One of the reasons why The Magazine is able to strip down its reading experience so much is that it has no advertising of any kind: the content is subsidized solely by subscriptions, and Arment said recently that it is already financially sustainable — since it is being produced almost single-handedly, and therefore has an extremely low cost structure compared to traditional publishing. In that sense, it approaches what some have called “artisanal” publishing, and there is some good discussion of the pros and cons of that model in a Branch discussion that includes designer Jon Lax and NYT staffer Jeremy Zilar.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
From a design perspective, however, the simplicity of the app is its most interesting feature, in part because Arment seems to have approached it in a way that is the complete antithesis of traditional publishers: as he has described in his posts about the genesis of the project, he started it by thinking about what elements he really needed, and left everything else out. By contrast, most magazines and newspapers seem to ask themselves “How can we take all the stuff we already have and the things we already do, and squeeze them into this new container?” This process is fundamentally broken.
Designer Craig Mod looked at The Magazine and its design philosophy in a perceptive essay entitled “Subcompact publishing,” in which he compares what Arment did to the way that Honda disrupted the automotive business in North America, by providing something that fit the minimum needs of a large group of consumers. In a similar way, Mod argues, publishers need to stop thinking about all the things they can cram into a design on the web or a mobile device and start thinking about what developers and entrepreneurs call a “minimum viable product.”
“Business skeuomorphism happens when we take business decisions explicitly tied to one medium, and bring them to another medium — no questions asked. Business skeuomorphism is rampant in the publishing industry.”
There are already some great examples of content experiences that are trying for a “minimum viable product.” The Magazine is one, but so are lesser-known or more experimental features such as Evening Edition, which was created by designer Mike Monteiro and provides a heavily-curated selection of news and features designed to give readers an overview of the world in the same way a newspaper front page does (or used to). Another more recent entrant is a news site called TL;DR — internet slang for “too long, didn’t read” — which summarizes top stories in a more approachable way than traditional portals.
Let the content fit the experience, not the other way around
Other similar experiments include Summ.ly, a startup launched by a 16-year-old entrepreneur, which Om wrote about recently. It is also designed in as simple a way as possible, to take advantage of the limited time and screen real estate that mobile users often have when it comes to content consumption — something that is also a driving force behind Circa, the mobile news-aggregation app launched earlier this year by entrepreneur Matt Galligan and funded by Cheezburger empire CEO Ben Huh. And then there is the short-form, mobile reading experience offered by Tapestry, which was recently launched by New York-based incubator Betaworks based on a model pioneered by author Robin Sloan.
It’s worth noting that Twitter is a great example of the “minimum viable product” approach, both as a company and as a way of publishing content: not only is the restriction to 140 characters something that keeps Twitter from becoming cluttered with too much verbiage — the way other formats such as blogs can be — but the whole nature of the service itself was so simplified that in the beginning it wasn’t even clear to many people what it should be used for. That didn’t start to become obvious (even to the company’s founders, I would argue) until millions of people were using it, and even then many of the uses that the tool was put to came as a surprise.
This is part of the reason why some Twitter users are so concerned about the future of the platform, as it adds more content through features like its expandable “Cards” and seems determined to layer more and more functionality on top of the service. With any kind of publishing, there seems to be an almost irresistable temptation to continue adding more features and content and doo-dads until the original simplicity of the experience is lost, or at least significantly diluted.
Why aren’t more traditional publishers experimenting with features or services that are similar to Arment’s magazine, or Tapestry’s mobile approach, or a stripped-down experience like that offered by TL;DR or Circa? It’s not because they can’t — obviously they could if they wanted to. But as Craig Mod suggests in his essay, with reference to disruptive economics guru Clay Christensen, they don’t do this for the same reason North American auto-makers didn’t compete with Honda: they simply didn’t see it as a competitor until it was almost too late, because they had defined their business in the wrong way.