Mobile apps with a death wish

In a bid to look fresh, mobile app makers risk making their apps worse -- as many media apps show

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USA Today on all devices and Reuters on the iPad are examples of apps that commit another design faux pas that inhibits usability: shrinking text. In both cases, their index screens are unreadable past the lead stories. They're trying to simulate an old-fashioned print newspaper layout by making the top story bigger and the others smaller. However, the smartphone and tablet screens are already small, and they can be hard enough to read for people over 35. (The Reuters iPhone app ironically, is nicely designed for readability, unlike its iPad version.)

Small text is a problem on small devices, and I'm amazed at how many apps -- not just those for media -- use small text. It's clear this is a growing problem. At its recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced a new facility in iOS 7 that lets users set a universal text size adjustment, and Apple execs publicly urged developers to support it in their apps. Apple realizes that too many apps abuse their users' eyes and don't provide flexibility. (Book apps such as the Kindle and iBooks do, and Apple's essentially standardizing their approach as a systemwide preference for apps to use.)

As a result, both the USA Today and Reuters are too hard to read on a smartphone and not so easy on a tablet. That's why they're gone on my iPhone and iPad. I've switched to the Retuers website on the iPad -- it's not the greatest news website, but it's easier to use than the app. I've given up on USA Today, as its website commits the same sin as its app.

It is possible to create a tablet app that looks like a traditional newspaper or magazine. The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Economist apps are great examples, especially on the iPad. On the iPhone, the Times and Economist smartly devolve to a list-style presentation, which better fits the small window.

But you don't have to emulate a dead-trees product to succeed in news presentation in mobile. The LeMonde and BBC apps are decent, using a mix of design cues from the Web, print, and mobile.

Finally there's the ultimate sin embodied by the Public Radio Player app. Earlier this year, a truly ugly update replaced the previous version, which was serviceable but not elegant. The user interface grew overly complex and harder to navigate. Worse, the app became unreliable -- it often doesn't connect to the the radio station streams or even get the list of local stations. The level of outrage in user comments is high. My solution: I deleted it everywhere and replaced it with the NPR News app, whose news feed is not so comprehensive but whose Stations feature lets me find and save local public radio stations for streaming -- what the Public Radio Player app used to do before its ill-advised face-lift.

Public Radio Player (left) and NPR News (right) on the iPhone
The new Public Radio Player app (left) often can't find local stations, unlike the NPR News app (right).

"Usability" and "design thinking" are popular buzzwords these days. They really are what app developers should be optimizing for. But too few actually deliver on making apps both usable and functional.

This article, "Mobile apps with a death wish," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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