Content design for tablets: swipe versus scroll

A while ago, Mario Garcia, renowned newspaper and magazine design consultant, asked me to comment on tablet design for an article he was writing for the Austrian marketing and media magazine Horizont. His question came through Twitter: “What is your take on swipe vs. scrolling?”

I sent him an email back, and while we wait for the Austrian to English translation of the Horizont article, I thought I would share my response here.

What’s the difference?

“Swiping” happens between two distinct pages, whether they move vertically or horizontally, whereas scrolling is a continuous movement. We are familiar with vertical scrolling from web pages, but horizontal scrolling also occurs with the introduction of “carousels” or “sliders”.

The curated experience – print reinvented

Before getting into the differences, let’s talk about an over arching trend in tablet content apps. Whether they are static (updated periodically) or dynamic (web based, connected to an RSS feed or similar), many apps try to create the sense of an edition based, finite and curated experience. This is true both for newspaper and magazine apps as well as aggregator apps like Flipboard or Editions by AOL.

It can be argued that we are entering the era of “Curated Computing“, a term coined by Sarah Rotman Epps from Forrester. It basically means that people are looking for less but more relevant content, packaged for easy consumption.

This trend is important to note when discussing swiping versus scrolling.

 Swipe signals a start and an end

For publishers attempting to create an “edition based” experience similar to print, swiping from page to page gives readers a sense of familiarity. They’ve done this before. Progressing from one page to another, they use a gesture very similar to what they would have used in the good old print days. Because of that they sense there is a start and an end.

I believe a big group of users are looking for that familiarity and experience. Even apps not founded in legacy newspapers/magazines are attempting to create that sense of familiarity: The Daily, Project Magazine, and all the aggregator apps as I mentioned before, such as Flipboard, Zite, Editions by AOL and the latest, Livestand from Yahoo!. (For more reading on the rise of aggregator apps, check out these articles from Nieman Journalism Lab and Hoosier40.com).

Scrolling feels infinite

Vertical scrolling tends to feel infinite. The page just keeps going. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on what you want to achieve with your app. For example, CNN’s iPad app uses scrolling for navigation on the home page as well as within each article. Some find that experience overwhelming (the ones enjoying the curated, finite experience), others love it. Huffington Post also uses scrolling. Currently, you can choose between the “NewsGlide” version, which uses horizontal scrolling within each category slider, or the “Classic”, which scrolls vertically. Articles in both versions scroll vertically.

Mixing swiping and scrolling – when it works

But be careful when you mix swiping and scrolling within the same app. In the Orange County Register iPad app (which I helped develop), horizontal scrolling is used for the index page, but each article is swipe based. I think it can work in this instance.

It can also work in apps where you primarily use swipe throughout the app, but if you have to tell a story in a specific way, then you use scrolling. For example, The Daily, which always uses swipe and only horizontally, sometimes use a full page scroll or partial page scroll to show a continuous timeline or alike.

 Mixing swiping and scrolling – when it doesn’t work

Other times, mixing doesn’t work well. I personally love the great content in Spin Magazine’s app (still waiting for a great Rolling Stone app), but the navigation confuses me. Some articles have a fixed position photo with a vertical scrollable text area next to it. The scrollable area is so narrow that it makes the article hard to read and seemingly endless. It’s too much work having to keep scrolling. Other articles use vertical swipes instead, making the confusion complete.

Consistency in navigation is key

The key to success is consistency. Get the reader used to your navigation and stick with it. If you develop your app for both landscape and portrait view, make sure the navigation stays consistent in both views.

Navigational cues

Also, make sure to give the user navigational cues, so they know what to expect and how they should advance. This is helpful for common navigation, and it is particularly helpful, if you are occasionally adding enhanced content such as timelines, 360 photos, scratch-offs, etc. Let the readers know how you want them to interact.

Further reading

For further reading, I encourage you to read “Usability of iPad Apps and Websites” by the Nielsen Norman Group. There are two versions, one from 2010 and one from this summer. They are filled with good info, specific to this topic.

Also, on a related note, check out Josh Clark’s blog. Josh is skeptical about the future of “digital editions.” As he says, ”publishers and designers have to start thinking about content at a more atomic level, not in aggregated issues.” I think there’s great potential in that new line of thinking. But I also think great brands will remain. There’s room for both so to speak. Anyways – that’s a discussion for a different blog post.

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4 thoughts on “Content design for tablets: swipe versus scroll

  1. You know, I was spending a lot of time over the past couple days trying to figure out how to get the vertical scrolling on my new app for Newsstand. And while I DO, of course, want to figure that out, your article made me rethink it. I have a feeling our readership will be older people who prefer the hard copy magazine feel. So that’s one less thing I have to deal with to get this thing live. THANK you.

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