We are all aware of the challenges facing the publishing industry. With readership declines, reductions in ad revenue and the search for new revenue streams, print publications are struggling to not become obsolete. But we are also witnessing some pretty interesting ways that publishing is using digital technology to rethink the print medium. From digital editions to embedding QR codes, the industry has been working to evolve a new form that combines the best of the print and digital worlds. “Print is dead…long live print?” Well, maybe.
The August 27, 2012 issue of TIME Magazine is devoted to the “Wireless World.” TIME subscribers with smartphones are now able to take the reading experience to a whole new level when they download the recently updated version of TIME Mobile, which includes a big qualitative change over QR codes. What’s new? Complementing the stories and photo essays in TIME Mobile, version 3.0, is the Digital Scanner, which launches bonus content directly from the page when you “hover” your smartphone over an indicated image. This could be a big step forward since users feel more immersed in the experience when reading, browsing, or flipping through a magazine.
But in order to encourage widespread adoption, these digitizing efforts have to be useful, usable and desirable.
A closer look
Let’s start with utility. QR codes are clunky, ugly and rely on third-party sources to be activated. They have not blended into the rhythm of reading or, for that matter, walking past an outdoor transit poster. Once activated, the content revealed by QR codes never seems to be worth the effort. At GfK, we’d call that a very low “effort-to-value” ratio.
With the TIME Mobile Digital Scanner, however, users are able to unlock additional photos and videos simply by placing their smartphones a few inches above certain images in the issue. One such image contains embedded video of a photojournalist offering tips for taking the best photos possible with your smartphone. This is definitely a step up from not-so-attractive-looking QR codes and an innovative approach to enhancing user interaction with the app.
There’s something comforting about rolling up a magazine and putting it in your gym bag to read whenever and wherever. The Digital Scanner may provide a simple way to enhance the mobile magazine experience – without radically altering the experience itself.
Designed with couch potatoes and commuters in mind
One nice feature is the simple, easy to follow instructions for how to use the scanner. Once the option to “scan” an image is selected, a quick explanation appears for users to reference. The “help” icon triggers an animated demo that goes through each step and motion in the scanning process. It even mimics the confirmation ‘buzz’ that happens when the scanner locks-in and loads the embedded content.
Scanning pages proved to be surprisingly easy; the process was forgiving of varying camera angles, different phone orientations, moderate lighting, and shaky hands. It even worked when the magazine was help upright or angled, which bodes well for both commuters and couch potatoes. This particular issue included five Digital Scanner images, each with access to an exclusive video clip upon scanning. Even more surprising, all five of them loaded quickly with no buffering problems.
Burying the Lead?
The first commandment of print journalism is “don’t bury the lead,” but that is exactly what TIME did with their new, and most impressive, feature. The scan function is treated inconsistently and in an understated way. It appears as one of three icons on the top of the home screen alongside “News,” “Settings” and general app information. The scan icon itself should be introducing a new, unfamiliar and potentially exciting feature, yet still adhere to mobile design best practices. But its small text, graphic, and poor contrast of gray-on-gray tones make it easy to miss.
While this new scanning function may be easy to use, it’s not necessarily easy to find within the app itself.
While the scan function can be reached via both “Settings” and “Scan,” they are only available on the home screen. That left us wondering why a user interested in scanning content while viewing “Media” or “Popular” items must go back to “News” first? TIME did however identify magazine pages with scannable content using the same icon, although added a second color (yellow and gray), so this may aid in discovery of this feature. One last quirk: below the scan button is an “Augmented Reality” option, which may confuse some users. It is never explained, and the current issue does not appear to embed any Augmented Reality features.
Combining Gutenberg and Gigs
Overall, the Digital Scanner for the new TIME Mobile app works well, with greater usability and utility than its QR code ancestor. From our perspective, the new TIME Mobile app takes a big step in combining the tactile magazine experience with expansive digital content. This will cut the trail for other tools and technologies that could exploit and mash together the best aspects of both media. There is great potential to be unlocked, but this is just the beginning…