Jul 20, 2011

Touching Stories: Matt Carlson Discusses Digital Publishing and Tablets

There’s widespread hope that the iPad and other tablet devices will become the digital saviors of magazines. But what does it mean to design and publish with tablets in mind? How can it be done efficiently? And how can publishers, you know, make money along the way?

These are some of the many questions that Matt Carlson, Hot Studio’s Principal of Experience Strategy and Design, has been laboring over the past few years. Even before the iPad was released, Matt and an interdisciplinary team at Hot were working on magazine apps for the iPad, starting with Zinio.

In March of this year, Matt gave a talk called “Touching Stories” at the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, during which he discussed what he and his team have learned about digital publishing and tablets so far. Here are a few key takeaways.

Free the Articles

“Publishers tend to think of magazines as closed objects,” says Matt. “They think that articles are linked to specific issues, and there’s really no separating them.”

While this line of thinking made sense for print publishing, it simply doesn’t work in digital publishing, much less in tablet environments. People want to share articles and curate their own experiences.

So what’s the solution? According to Matt, publishers should consider “freeing the articles from the issues in which they were published.” In other words, allow each article to be its own entity, separate from the issue in which it was originally published. Allow these articles to bounce around and be shared but tie the articles to a meaningful, immersive advertising experience that travels with the article wherever it goes.

Incorporate Conversation

Everyone shares and discusses articles on Twitter and Facebook. But what this creates, according to Matt, is a split. “The conversation winds up happening away from the articles themselves.”

Publishers should look at ways of using tablets to weave content and social features like Twitter together. Doing so will help magazines become truly interactive.

Keep ‘em Flipping

Matt and his team have found users still want to flip through their magazines, even the digital ones. “It’s hard-wired into our brains,” he says.

Think Cross-Platform (Or: Keep it Simple)

Print. Web. iPad. Android. Mobile Web. Already, the number of platforms available to publishers can be overwhelming.

“Imagine you’re an editor and just finished a huge issue, your biggest of the year,” says Matt. “Everyone is exhausted, you’re exhausted. And now imagine telling your staff that they’ll have to design a whole separate issue, for the Web, and another for tablets, and another just for the iPad. You’re quadrupling the work.”

And you’d have some very unhappy staffers on your hands.

The key, then, is to keep it simple. Choose a platform that meets your publication’s needs across a number of devices, rather than designing a unique experience for each. The video site Vimeo recently did this, removing all Flash from its site and going to an HTML5 design that works on the Web and mobile devices. It was a big decision and required a lot of upfront work, but it’s something that will help make life easier for Vimeo in the future.

So what do you think? What tablet platforms should publishers be looking at? And how can they be incorporating interactive features and more relevant ads?