We're starting a new community project: every week, we'll post a web app or game and ask you all for your feedback on what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and how we could all learn from its design choices. We'll also frequently offer our own thoughts. This week, Ashish Bogawat gives us a rundown of the New York Times's app for Chrome.
It wasn't long ago that Google took the desktop web browser market by storm with Chrome. Along with a whole bunch of fresh ideas and relentless focus on lightning fast browsing, the feature that caught all other browsers unaware was the Chrome Web Store. What started with a whole lot of overhyped links to websites and a handful of specially designed browser-based apps has quickly turned into an avalanche of native applications that seem to take better advantage of the browser's capabilities with every release, making Chrome the clear leader in the browser space as far as third-party develop support is concerned.
The New York Times app was one of the first native apps on Chrome - and was, for a long time, their showcase for the future of web-based rich internet applications. Built specifically to take advantages of the browser's innards, the app took news reading in a browser to an entirely new level and set the trend for others to follow. It is only apt, then, that we start this series with the NYTimes Chrome app.
I would like to divide this critique into two broad sections: what I think works very well in the app from a user experience standpoint, and what doesn't. The focus here is purely on the the interface and interaction design, and does not attempt to get into the technicalities of how the app was developed - something I would rather leave to the experts.
What I Like About the App
The first thing that strikes you when you launch the app is how clean, simple and snappy it feels. The designers have clearly spent a lot of time ensuring that the one thing that stays in focus the most is the content - the news.
A good 90% of the screen real estate is dedicated to the content which, by default, contains the top news stories of the moment. On the right, the Sections list is clearly stated, yet unobtrusive. Since I am not a paid subscriber to the NY Times, the lock icons clearly tell me that I'm only going to have restricted access to anything other than the Top News category.
The design for the content is a nice hybrid between traditional newspaper layouts and more modern, for-screen interactive layouts. Bigger stories get more space on the left with stories getting smaller and smaller as they go towards the right and demand less importance. Since the interactive medium affords designers the possibility of giving readers a glimpse of the content before delving deeper, a much more voluminous scattering of stories is possible here than in a printed newspaper, and the app takes good advantage of this ability.
The layout also adapts to some extent to the content it represents. The Photos section, for example, is much more a collage of images than a grid of stories since there's little to read there. While clicking a story opens up the full text of that news item, clicking a photo pulls up a slideshow of related images.
Of course, the app also scores a lot of points in giving the reader the ability to control their news reading experience. If you don't like the default layout, there are a whole bunch of alternative styles available from the 'Layout' link in the bottom right. Sure, none of these are drastically different from each other, but for the audience of this app - long time readers who are likely to spend a decent amount of time within it - the subtle variations can mean the difference between easy reading and frustration.
The ability to navigate through the entire app with keyboard shortcuts (primarily the arrow keys) is a huge advantage. Again, this is a big win for avid readers. As with pretty much every reading app worth its while, the abilities to bookmark and share stories, and to customize the font size when reading long articles are common sense inclusions, and nicely implemented.
What Doesn't Work as Well
As with most apps, though, not everything is perfectly where it should be. Subtle design decisions like the save icon (+) in the top-right corner of each story synopsis, the color changes on rollover or the lock icons to denote premium content are good as long as one is savvy enough to figure out what they might mean. And yes, one might argue that computer literacy - at least in a country like the US - is at a stage where non-savvy users are rare. But my problem remains that affordances for interactive elements in a design this flat pose a learning curve to some extent for all users.
From a user interface design perspective, some decisions make very little sense. At first glance, the right-side panel looks like an accordion where I expect the Layout, My Account and Shortcuts to open up inside the panel to reveal details like the Sections do. Instead, they are all links that behave entirely differently when clicked. No hover states for pretty much anything in this panel as well as the bottom panel in the story view are glaring omissions that don't make any sense. The page navigation arrows don't even have a cursor change to indicate that they are active!
Another problem which is possibly unique to me is that some of the keyboard shortcuts just don't work. When in the main view, hitting the / key is supposed to switch me over to the selecting articles using arrow keys, but I just can't seem to get it to work. Maybe I'm doing something wrong or my browser/OS combination is at fault, but I expect the designers to have tested the most common scenarios (mine is a simple Chrome Beta on Windows 7 setup that's far from rare) before releasing the app.
There are also other bugs like blank pages at the end of stories, which leads one to wonder what level of testing goes into the release of an app of this magnitude.
So yes, the app has its pros and cons. All in all, though, I like what it achieves with its brave attempt to bring the best of both worlds to the platform. News on the web has come a long way since the days of scanned PDFs of newspapers playing through clumsy Flash widgets, and the future seems only brighter. Now to wait and see which publication one-ups NY Times in building something truly revolutionary.
What do you think of NYTimes for Chrome? Share your constructive criticism in the comments below!
And if you've got a browser app or game that you'd like the Activetuts+ community to do a critique on, submit it here. We're looking forward to seeing what you've built.