Free Advice for: The New York Times iPad App

I am a crank. There, I said it. Around the cS offices, I have a reputation as a curmudgeon and grouch. I have never been slow to voice an opinion, file a complaint, or take a company to task for everything from a unreliable product to poor customer service. This post is intended as the first in a series of “free advice” columns for producers of software and other services on how they can improve their products, marketing, messaging, branding, strategy, tactics… I could go on and on. And I plan to.

I tend to find many of my experiences interacting with products and services to be annoying. Frustrating. Maddening. This seems to happen to me all too often in the world of user interface and user experience. The art and science of UI/UX is a well established presence in software and web design, yet plumbing the esoteric mysteries is beyond the ken of the average entrepreneur or small business person. But, we sure do know it when we see it and, shockingly, in the age of Web 3.x we see it way too often. In many cases the subjective judgment of the end user should create a roadmap for designers and developers, and the very best companies take into account customer feedback and other primary research such as user testing, focus group response, and media reviews of their offerings.

Now, I have been the happy owner of an iPad 2 for over a year now and use it extensively. I send and receive emails; I schedule my life on the calendar. I get directions. I use cookbooks; I do banking and financial transactions; I shop; I watch videos; I listen to music. And I read. Books, magazines, blogs, and The New York Times. I consider it to be the best newspaper in the world and it is my primary source for information on everything from politics, to world affairs, to economics, business, sports, and politics. The Op-Ed page is probably the single greatest source for starting conversations around the crowdSPRING lunch table (that’s right, team. I get that stuff from the Op-Eds). The Times on the iPad probably represents the single greatest time investment I make outside of my work and my family. Get it? I am a heavy user of this product and a loyal consumer of the Time’s content. But. It could be better and it should be better. The Times has some of the highest-powered design and UI talent on the face of the earth working right there in the building; I know because I saw a couple of them speak at SXSW in 2009 (impressive). I do wish that they would spend a little more time iterating and improving – so here’s 5 things I want them to do. For me. That’s right, for me.

1. More and better graphics. What could be more annoying than an article that refers to a specific graphic or image and then doesn’t include that graphic! Well, I’ll tell you one thing that’s more annoying – a regular column about photography titled The Lens Blog that includes absolutely no photographs. And not just once, but week after week. Why even put it in the iPad version of the paper if you’re not going to include the photographs. Jeesh.

2. Let me customize. Yes, the app does let me determine the order of the sections, but why not the page layout? Why not how and where I want to view those images I was complaining about a minute ago? I want to build my own version of the front page with the top articles I like to see and how hard can it be? If Yahoo has been giving me a customizable landing page since 1973, then why can’t the NYT app?

3. Help me find that article I saw yesterday but couldn’t get to. The Times editorial staff does a notable job of updating the iPad version regularly throughout the day and night. But I can’t tell you the number of times that skip over an article intending to return to it later, but find that is has been dropped from the rotation and the app gives me no way to find it again! Maybe an index page organized by category? Yes, they have recently introduced a “Saved” folder which allows you to tag articles to read later, but this is awkward on those (many) occasions when you make a mental note to get back to something later.

4. Stabilize the thing. For one of the most popular and downloaded apps in the world, the NYT app is surprisingly unstabler and buggy. It crashes regularly and sometimes seems to reset itself all by itself causing my preferences and account information to just vanish into thin air.

5. Sports scores and standings, for crying out loud. I am not the biggest sports fan in the world, but I do like to check in periodically just to see where things stand. Virtually every paper in the world, including the Times, publishes tables with the team standings and the results of yesterdays games, but not the NYT iPad version. I would kiss the sports editors if they just gave me this simple content on my iPad. Also, as I write this it is March Madness, the annual college basketball extravaganza and nowhere in the app is there a current bracket. Go ahead, make me leave your app for your rivals at CNN and ESPN. They got it, why don’t you?