SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Reading News on an iPad is Astonishly Bad UX

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2012

pravdaHi, my name is Bob Warfield, and I am a news junkey.  I subscribe to about 200 blogs in my feed reader.  I alternate between my Gmail, Google Reader, and Google News when I have a spare moment of leisure, looking for something new and exciting to discover.  I do this almost entirely on my iPad because it’s nice to get away from my home office desk where I spend most of my time working on my bootstrap company, CNCCookbook.  More and more, I am considering reducing the frequency of my access to Google News and primarily limiting it to my desktop.  The reason?  The User Experience reading news there is astonishingly bad.  Mind you, it’s only a little bit better on the desktop, but I find that accessing it with Chrome instead of the iPad’s built-in browser smooths the journey just ever so slightly, and it needs a Hell of a lot of smoothing.

Welcome to Smoothspan Blog, fasten your seat belts, and keep arms and legs inside the car at all times, because it’s been awhile, and it’s time for a good rant.

Before I go much further, let me give some absolution to Apple and the iPad, though the browser on the device surely could stand to be better.  Some part of what I am about to report is potentially browser related, but I do understand the iPad browser is more like an innocent bystander than the slavering maniac who is dishing out the BS causing my pain (sorry, a little of my inner monologue keeps slipping out when I’m angry).  I will also give partial absolution to Google and their News reader.  Again, it can only be partial, because just as Apple could build a more robust browser (you’ll see what’s needed shortly), Google could treat their news sources like they treat everyone else.  There’ve been SEO-related Google Search releases that heavily penalize sites that are too spammy, for example, but you don’t have to spend long accessing the literary giants like the New York Times via the Google News to see that those who are supposedly well above the commonplace web are offering a UX that has more in common with the worst days of America Online (AOL for you young ‘uns) than it does with their high falutin’ words.

With that aside, it’s time for me to explain what my problem is, and the good news it that it is simple.  When I open the Google News page, here is the sort of thing that happens to me more often than not:

I click an article only to discover I can’t really read it without subscribing due to the pay wall

For example, the Wall Street Journal has been doing this to me.  I’ll wind up on a page with a big giant Pay Wall notice and there is maybe one sentence of actual story text.  Of course Google got to index the whole story and placed it in their News Feed according to the full text, not the one sentence.  This is in violent contradiction to their normal webmaster guidelines where making the experience for Google differ from that of average viewers is strictly Verboten.  It is also in contradiction to their recent changes that heavily penalize pages that show much advertising above the fold.  Advertising?  Fold?  Hah!  On the WSJ stories I’ve been seeing there is nothing but advertising above the fold.  I don’t care who they are or what kind of national treasure their journalists may be, this is spam, served up steaming hot by Google and the WSJ.  Oddly, while this happened to me three times this morning on the iPad, there was no sign of it on my desktop.  I’m sure there’s some cookie or other thing counting off my accesses, and since I mostly read on the iPad, it gets dinged first.

BTW, NY Times, just because you let me see 10 or however many articles before your Pay Wall popup, I’m not any happier.  How about this:

Unlimited articles if accessed via Google News, and however many your Pay Wall allows if I go there via search, a referral link, or directly?

I click on an article and I’m immediately greeted by an offer to download their iPad app

Oh goody.  That’s just what I want.  Guess what guys?  You are needlessly and annoyingly delaying me on the journey to my reward.  I am reading from a feed that has God knows how many different news publications.  What are the chances I want to download an app for each and every one?  This is the Internet in the 2000’s.  There may be some people who want to sit at the breakfast table and read your waste of wood pulp cover to cover.  Leave them to doing that on the wood pulp and leave me out of it.  At least get the hint when I say, “No” the first time and quit asking.

I click on an article and it freezes and reloads multiple times.  Ultimately, it may just crash.

This happens constantly and is the robustness issue I hold Apple partially accountable for.  Apparently, in order to enact their diabolical Pay Wall, Advertising, and Privacy Subversion schemes, the newspapers have to run such wretchedly abusive Javascript, that the browser just can’t handle it smoothly.  I don’t see this in Chrome on my desktop, but it is constant on the mobile devices.  Something comes up.  You start reading.  You might even get one little scroll in.  Then the screen repaints and you’ve lost your place.  Or it freezes and you can’t scroll further until the diabolical machinations have completed.  This may go on through two, three, or even four cycles before it finally settles down.  On any of the cycles, there is a finite chance that the browser evaporates completely due to a crash and you’re left staring at the desktop.  Now you have a question to face, because that newspaper has just asked you in true Clint Eastwood fashion, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”  If you do, you’ll reload.  If not, you’ll demurely return to Google News and look for some other story to read.  After all, you were probably not worthy of the high quality journalism and you mercifully just missed seeing that damned pay wall or an offer to download an iPad app.

Here’s a news flash, if you’ll pardon the pun:  you newspaper guys should fire your IT departments that write this stuff and pick up a nice copy of WordPress.  I never see these problems reading the 200 blogs I subscribe to.  Never.

And gosh, you might save enough to invoke the Pay Wall less often.

I click on an article and it is video.  Worse, it is video that can’t be played on an iPad.

Yes, Steve Jobs can still reach out from the grave with his hatred of Flash and stop us in our tracks on his sacred iDevices.  Excellent.

I don’t tend to like video at all on my iPad.  Playback is often painful, buggy, or nonexistent.  Yet, there’s no way for me to tell in advance that I am headed into a video-only story and that worse, it won’t even play on my iPad.  Sorry Google, I gotta blame this one on you, and yes Apple, you too.  Silly buggers, why did you think this was a good thing?

After I get done reading an article and go back to Google News, it insists on repainting

Hey, love the real time spirit.  But if you spend half your time waiting for repaints either in the news story or Google News, a lot will change and you’ll never even see it.  You Google guys are supposed to be algorithm experts, how about a little algorithm here?  How about if the story isn’t that big a deal, if it is just a rehash of something you already showed, you don’t refresh that more than every 10 minutes or so?  Gimme a chance to get to the bottom of the page once anyway.  If some amazing thing happens, and I’m trusting your algorithm mightily to understand and be reasonable about the definition of “amazing”, then feel free.  But don’t just do it every time anything at all has changed on the front page.

Okay, how do we fix this crappy User Experience?

I could go on for quite a while in that vein.  The UX here really is pathetically bad.  I spend literally hours on the net and never experience anything like it until I get started reading News stories.  That ain’t right.

One approach is for Google to penalize the egregious and Apple to fix their darned browser so it doesn’t crash so much (I have to laugh about the claim Flash accounts for most crashes on Apple devices, pretty sure it is this browser which crashes more than anything I run on my iPad, Flash/AIR apps included).  That’d be nice, but Apple being Apple (“we don’t need no steenking Google Maps and we’ll ship whatever we please whenever we please”) and Google being Google (“honestly, we don’t mean to be Evil, we just are”), that might not happen.

How about just putting some Social voting into Google News?  This way Google can point to real facts from users if the NY Times wonders why it is getting less traffic?  Or, they can point to real facts when Bob Warfield is on a rant and tell him to sit down, users clearly don’t agree.  I believe a lot of good comes of group curation.  Unfortunately, I am just not sure Google cares a lot.  It’s pretty hard to tell what they do care about these days.  Google News might just be something they do so as not to leave an exposed flank and they don’t need to do it particularly well before moving on.

Or, how about counters?  Imagine if each story told what % of the time it was crashing your browser, what % of the time you’d have to go through some full page ad for mobile app or other, the average time it would take to load (another thing Google penalizes everyone but the newspapers for), and, well, you get the idea.  Heads would roll.  Things would get better.

I do find myself wondering about Yahoo.  I used to read their news before I became a Google Guy.  Unfortunately, they’re the people who will constantly log me out of my stock quotes to force me to type in my password expressly so they can sell a full page ad on their login page.  Do I think they will offer a better UX?  Nah, probably not.

(End of Rant)

Wishing you all Happy Holidays and be sure to check out the Geminids meteor storm tonight.  It is happening at a quasi-reasonable hour even.  FWIW, I hit many of the worst problems described above trying to find the details on the Geminids and that’s what drove me to the keyboard.  Sorry for the interruption, and please return to your normally scheduled activities as I will mine.

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