Redefining Reading and Sharing: Flipboard for iPhone

It’s hard for me to express how much I love Flipboard for iPhone. In short, it changes the way I think about reading and sharing news. It even changes the very definition of news itself.

What Is News?

No matter what you answer to that question, Flipboard supports you. Upon opening the application, you have the choice of reading content that Flipboard compiles from a few different categories, like ‘design’ or ‘photography’ (which is beautiful on a retina display). Or, you can plug in Google Reader to get your own news brought into the Flipboard interface. You can even have a channel for Facebook or Twitter. The more services you plug in, the more content you get.

There is a clear focus on content, not the source. The design category compiles articles from Core77, co.design, and design milk to name a few. You don’t have to sift through three different sources to find the best content — Flipboard curators do that for you. My sense is that human beings are the last point of exit for an article to hit the category stream, but initially the content is filtered using hit count, etc. It could also be that these news outlets (and more) have partnered with Flipboard to be exclusive providers within a category (more on revenue in a moment). Regardless, the content is always fresh and what you asked for.

It was only until I started using Flipboard did I make the true connection between Twitter and News. Most people only get their news from Twitter — 140 character briefs listed in a HeadlineNews format. Who cares about the article they link to? These people just want the gist. There are also people who use Twitter to augment their news experience. I follow CNN Breaking News, but I also read Reuters on Google. But, people clearly follow people as well — friends, family, co-workers. When using Flipboard, I treated each little 140-character nugget of joy as a little brief about someone’s day. One person I follow notes that he used four lights in photography. Another posts about his day in Bloomington. Both tweets are like headlines — the gist of the story I should gather from the content of what may or may not follow. The former example tells me more about James the photographer and the story he creates. The latter example gives me media about Grant’s day. Both provide insights into the story of a person — the stream of content that a person shares with others. On Flipboard, the stories are told the flick of a thumb. I almost think that my Twitter stream could be a giant book that tells me about my world.

The analogous comparison could be made for Facebook — people are sharing bits of their life story, and Flipboard brings it to life beyond just a scroll of a news feed. A large picture tied to a sentence. *Flick*. A full page status noting the birth of a baby boy. *Flick*. A video of someone’s favorite music video. *Play*, *Like*, *Flick*. News moves form the static to the interactive. You don’t just read stories, but you engage with them — all in the same place.

Making Sharing More Than Just a Retweet

I actually use the star function on Twitter. Flipboard puts it front and center, next to every picture, every link, every tweet. The star is actually as large as the back button and the search button. Why? Flipboard’s agenda seems two fold: reading and sharing. Yes, the app is superb at providing a unique reading experience, but so what? Flipboard redefines the way you think about the services themselves. Starring a tweet on Twitter means I thought it was funny, or perhaps somewhat notable. But, I didn’t know who actually looks at the tweets I star, nor did I think anyone cared. On Flipboard, starring a tweet means “Hey, I want to read this later, but I am kinda busy.” It also means “I want to show this to someone, but can’t right now.” Reading and sharing.

Google Reader now has a voice again. I have been an avid fan of Reeder by Silvio Rizzi. Reeder is a simple, fast way of going through my Google Reader stream, which can get upwards to 300-400 items in 10 hours or so (Much to Jacqui Cheng’s chagrin). If I want to mark all as read, there is a little button in the corner. My reading became skimming — run through the large list of items, see something that catches my eye, maybe skim that. After I was all done running through the list, I’d click the big check box and mark them all as read. With Flipboard, I am forced to read every headline. That’s because you only get 1-3 at a time. A flip signifies purpose: I have seen what I wanted to see on that page, so I’m going to turn it. It’s like a story book — I understood that page and am caught up. This is causing me to ask more questions about my content. Should I continue to read stories from this source? What did that blurb say? Wow, what’s the story behind that picture? The news is brought to view, front-and-center. I’ll still use Reeder on my Mac, but if Flipboard made a mac app, consider me a buyer (only a matter of time).

It’s the Experience

It starts with understanding the above, and it finishes with the experience of that understanding. As Robert Hoekman states, “What follows Why.” Yes, Flipboard changes news understanding, but you can’t show that understanding without the experience that the app provides.

Flipboard features a tutorial, but you don’t really need it. You can start by viewing a set category of content made by Flipboard, or you could tap the settings/search icon (an interesting design choice) to add your own services. Adding a service takes moments, and everything just works. Your Facebook, Twitter, Reader, or whatever content is displayed the same way — Flipboard doesn’t cut corners on what can be displayed; pictures look great, the text looks better. Flipboard also has what I’ll call ‘channels’ of news outlets within categories, like Forbes or FastCompany. If you don’t have a Google Reader account, you are likely going to use Flipboard channels instead.

The iPhone version features a new concept called “Cover Stories”, which really challenges what News means. Cover Stories takes the content from the streams you choose to plug in and decides what is the most prominent from these streams. Then, you can see all of the content from these streams interleaved in one spot. For example, I have the Flipboard categories ‘design’ and ‘photography’ as options on the front page, but I also have Google Reader, Facebook, and Twitter as well. All five of these sources are analyzed by the app and the “most important” stories are displayed in the Cover Stories tile. Their algorithm seems to be based on engagement — how many stars, likes, retweets, replies, or comments a particular content item has. Cover Stories works like a charm, and is the preferred way I get manage the signal to noise ratio of the content I have to absorb everyday.

The UI is completely polished, which comes from the company’s understanding of iOS from their experiences with Flipboard’s first release on the iPad. The iPad is undoubtedly one of the best ways to experience multimedia-rich content from several news sites, and Flipboard wove together the story, pictures, and sources in a unique and enjoyable way. Flipboard somehow took that experience and crammed it into the 3.5” diagonal — you still get the best content display, intuitive controls, and enjoyment out of the content you plug in. One of my favorite features is the sharing of stories instantly to Twitter/Facebook – just click the compose icon, add your comment, and send. In fact, two taps from the front page leads to the same compose icon, where you can tweet whatever without leaving the app (including adding photos and shortening links).

There are some minor details that need work. When a content item has more than two links, the app may not know which one to feature or link to. I haven’t quite figured out how to share twitter posts themselves; Flipboard only manages to share the links within them. It took me forever to find out how to make Flipboard mark items as read when I flip through them in Reader (the setting is hidden under a small, grey gear located on the bottom right corner of the front page). It didn’t help that their Twitter account didn’t respond to my pleas of help, but I can’t expect people to be as responsive as me. Finally, the mentioning function within the status composer could use a little more functionality, akin to Tweetbot’s @ recommendations.

Show Me the Money

Flipboard’s revenue model on the iPad is obvious: ads next to content. On the iPhone, it is a different story — there are no ads to be found. If they include ads, it will be interesting to see how they are interleaved with the content. I wouldn’t be opposed to this; however, I would rather pay a premium for the application ($2.99).

Flipboard also makes money by partnering with the channel news providers that the app features. The business section includes only 10-15 providers, including Forbes and WSJ. I imagine any traffic redirection is costing some small amount per hit. Flipboard generates no content themselves, except for a small blog that discusses app updates (Inside Flipboard).

This is an appropriate time to discuss Google Currents, “the Flipboard ________.” Google has been slowly building up to the release of this app, which serves as a conduit of news sharing between specific providers as channels to Google+ (primarily, but other sharing services can be added). Google’s revenue is made transparent with adwards/sense, but it also makes it obvious by making channels the only way content can be viewed in the app. Want to read Facebook/Twitter updates in Currents? You can’t. All you get is channels, and you are going to like it.

The analogy that’s easy to point to:

Flipboard : Google :: David : Goliath

Here’s why that’s wrong:

  • Flipboard’s mission is to make the reading and sharing of News enjoyable. Google’s mission is to provide you with information to read, and to make money off of you by keeping you in the Google ecosystem.
  • Flipboard understood the reading experience (the Why) before the actual app development (the What). Google usually leads with the what these days, since their ‘Why’ is the same — to make the world’s information readily accessible and useful.
  • As a result, Google has released an app under that broad pretense, while Flipboard’s more focused outlook leads to a better, constrained design.
  • Google was rushed to bring out this product, and the holes are noticeable. two digit page numbers barely fit inside tiny circles. Having pages for a story at all seems lucrative — why do we hate reading SAI articles so much? Flipboard has “page flipping”, but a story doesn’t require flips — just a smooth scroll. Additionally, the swiping gestures aren’t consistently mapped: swiping from right to left drills you down to a story from the front page, but you can’t move all the way back to the front page without hitting the back button. Why?

Google has made some lackluster design choices lately, from the removal of sharing in Reader to making their apps unified without leveraging uniqueness by creating meaning. The release of Currents is another example of shipping a product that requires some more thought first.

A Reminder

The takeaway: Flipboard’s success (in my view) is due to their understanding of the experience first. They made an application that, at it’s core, fosters a new understanding of news and sharing. Designing an application requires a deep core understanding of behaviors and needs first. Having a pretty experience is great, but a meaningful one is the one that reigns supreme.

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