July 28, 2015 Last Updated 10:02 am

Digital magazine readers stress readability over interactivity

Desktop editions begin to look good to readers when tablet editions too often feature PDFs with small fonts that require pinch-to-zoom in order to be read

The early days of tablet publishing saw a number of studies released, some publicly, some circulated within the industry. What they showed was consistent data, but interpreting that data seems to be more a case of seeing what one wanted to see.

Surveys from 2010 and 2011 showed the enduring popularity of print, though since it was print readers being surveyed, this shouldn’t have surprised. It also showed that readers said they wanted their magazines to look like print. This led more than a few publishers to conclude that producing replica editions was the way to go. That readers when asked what they wanted their digital magazines to look like would respond ‘like magazines’ shows the weakness of most surveys: it is difficult to create good questions that produce usable data.


A magazine readable in any format

Reader preference concerning devices would also be surveyed and here the data seemed to be more informative. Readers generally said they preferred print, then eReaders and tablets, then smartphones, followed by desktop magazines. Print was the more familiar format and so the fact that it would come out on top should not be a surprise. That desktop top magazines would come in last, though, showed that readers were also familiar with those Flash flipbooks, but did not like them.

The question rarely asked, however, was why?

A recent study by a publishing consulting firm shows that the reason likely was readability. (I won’t link to that site as it has a policy of regularly taking TNM content for its website and Twitter account, and never linking to the original source.)

In the early days of the tablet platform, with many native digital editions dominating the Apple App Store (this was before Apple launched the Newsstand), readability was probably one of the best traits of digital magazines. Replicas, while being released, were immediately seens as retro. In this environment, the two most readable formats were clearly print and tablet editions (few smartphone editions were released at that point).

Things changed when the Newsstand was launched and PDF platforms began to flood the new outlet with replica editions. Today, the most readable formats would probably be ranked as 1) print; 2) smartphone editions; 3) desktop flipbooks; and 4) tablet editions – with only native tablet editions rising to #1 or 2.

TheEcon-fontsThe latest survey I’ve seen say that readers overwhelmingly say that their number one demand of digital editions is that they be readable. This is very satisfying for me because I have consistently said that this should be an unbreakable rule for all digital editions. Everything else, all the multimedia and other features, are secondary to readability.

Because this is so important to readers they say that the desktop is now their second most popular platform to read magazines. Again, no surprise when so few digital editions created for tablets or smartphones are very good.

What is needed now, however, is an old fashioned Nielsen type of research, one where readers are asked to spend some time each day with various platforms and later asked their opinions. One would want to know some hard data, like how long did readers spend with each platform, how much did they read, etc. Then one would want to know their impressions and preferences after spending time with each platform. This type of closed environment research could control the quality of the magazines read – giving readers a good chance to compare print, native digital, replica digital and desktop products. When asked about digital editions, it makes a big difference if the digital magazine being asked about is like the excellent product from The Economist, or the new replica edition for Martha Stewart Living.

This is the kind of research one might expect one of the publishing associations to sponsor – their members need this information. I doubt executive management would consider such a study, but one of the committees might see real value in the data.

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