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Political magazine The Spectator has just launched an iPhone app with an interesting subscription model. Unlike recent apps released by other publishers such as FT.com and The Telegraph, The Spectator's version charges users 59p per week for access.
However, while the subscription model might be intriguing, and offers a glimpse of how publishers may make money from mobile apps, it fails to deliver on user experience...
Users need to pay 59p to download the app in the first place, or else choose to pay £2.36 to get a month's subscription along with the download, which certainly compares favourably with the £67 it costs to buy a full online subscription.
For this weekly charge, you get access to the current issue of the magazine, as well as five year's of back issues:
Once you have downloaded the app you can then choose to pay for an extra week's subscription from within the app, which is easy enough:
This is a convenient way of paying for content through the iPhone, and an idea that may well be copied by other publishers, and is a model that could work well, though whether it can make a profit on 59p per week once Apple has taken its cut is another matter. Indeed, The Guardian is planning to charge for its iPhone app,though the exact model is unclear as yet.
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It is the execution of the app that lets it down though, as it delivers the worst user experience I have seen from any comparable iPhone app. The magazine has essentially been shrunk to fit the iPhone's screen with no thought of optimising it for mobile readers:
The pages look like they are just poorly compressed images that have been scanned from the magazine version, and the pages take so long to load properly that you are looking at blurred text for a number of seconds, as in the example above, before you can begin to try and read anything.
I tried it on a wi-fi connection, and it was slow enough, so I can imagine how frustrating it would be on a 3G connection.
To navigate round the app, you can choose an issue from the app's contents page, then it is a case of pressing the arrows to move back and forth between pages, rather than allowing users to scroll by flicking the screen, which is the obvious way to do it.
The contents page
The other navigational link at the bottom of the app takes users to the contents page, which is a bit of a nightmare to figure out.
As you can see from the screenshot below, the text is so small that no-one could possibly read it without zooming in, and there is so much text on the page that a lot of work is required to zoom in and move around to make sense of it.
The green splodges on the screenshot below are actually links which can be clicked to move to the individual pages, or in the case of the contact details at the bottom of the page, to email The Spectator.
This is a bizarre way to present links, and users that are used to text underlined in blue may take some time to figure out what they are. Worse still, as you zoom in, the green highlighting disappears, so then you are unsure what to press to jump to article pages.
It turns out that the page numbers are clickable, but this took a bit of time to figure, out, and really users shouldn't have to work that hard to find a simple link.
Once you have negotiated the contents page and actually found an article you want, then more zooming and scrolling around the page is required to read it, once you have waited for the text to load.
As you can see in the example below, it cannot be read without zooming in, and the text is so small to begin with that the reader is required to do a lot of work to read a large-ish article.
Other apps, such as the impressive version of FT.com for the iPhone, allow users to turn the phone into an article reader, choose a larger text size, and most importantly, keep the amount of text on a single page to a manageable level.
The subscription model is good, and represents value for money based on the amount and quality of the content you get access to, and offers a way for publishers to increase revenues, but the execution is poor.
The app is difficult to navigate, the pages render poorly and take too long to load, and simply reading an article requires a huge effort. It looks like the app has been created without too much consideration for usability on a mobile.
By following some basic mobile best practice principles, such as designing article and contents pages to work well on a small screen, making links clearer, and improving the loading times, then the app could be greatly improved.