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Decluttering the lean-back reading experience

Interview 2.0

Cast an eye over a website that most appeals to you in terms of lean-back reading and you’ll probably find a few common themes – minimal colour scheme, an absence of distracting clutter and clean design that incorporates a font that is comfortable on the eye, and not overly-expressive or extravagant. Readability, an online application that strips online articles of extraneous visual accoutrements, is an example of best practice in this field. Long, page-turning reads get whittled down into nothing more than pure electronic ink, in a font size that is generous enough to avoid having to squint; even on the most the most diminutive of portable screens.

I spoke to David Sleight, the product lead at Readability, about the advantages of the platform and what the future holds for online reading.

What do you think is the main strength of Readability?

Right now, it’s the platform. It’s the API [the programming interface]. It’s becoming increasingly orbital, in that it centres around the user more and more. You can’t dictate the terms to users anymore; it’s about following the reader and enabling them to read content when and where they want to. There are dozens of readers that use the API that we have – the RSS feed, the reader, Tweetbot – all of which are both web-based and application based.

Have you noticed any general trends as to what users want from a reading experience? Do those demands differ according to the platform they use?

In broad terms, users want the same thing, but we’re actually just starting to tap into the wealth of data on that. We have seen that the engagement is astounding. Looking at the kind of content that users want and the form in which they want to consume it, something really compelling happened. For example, our Top Reads feature, which we just launched, looks at reading patterns across the world. We discovered that the average read time is over four minutes per piece. I come from the magazine world, where 15 seconds on a page was considered fantastic. So this tells you intuitively that something big is going on here. One of my priorities at the moment is to start parsing those trends. It’s not a confrontational thing. We actually want to find models that make publishing profitable again. Whatever the right model is, it’s definitely not what we’ve been doing up until now across the industry.

On a related note to that four minute mark, do you think that signals that long-form journalism is being valued more nowadays?

My intuition is that, yes, there is definitely a place for long-form journalism, and the kind of readership that Readability has proves the point. The accepted wisdom over the last five years has been that long-form is fading away, but I think that has changed over the last year. Four minutes may not be the 20 minute piece, but those latter pieces are definitely in our top ten, and it shows that people are setting aside a good chunk of time to read. People are consuming content voraciously, and the thing is, we’ve actually carved out a space here that says, “you’re coming here to read” and users are doing it.

As a former newsroom creative director, I can also say that organisations need to start looking at designs very culturally. Web design has only been around a short time, and in that time very thematic notions of what a page should look like have developed. If you want people to start engaging with your content, then you really need to look hard at what you’re doing with it, both online and within applications.

Do you think there is an overriding focus for design to focus on maximizing ad space rather than content?

This is a question about how to make ads work again and looking at the 80:20 ratio for ads to subscribers at most magazines. When I was in the magazine world, as a tech guy, it was a hard to wrap my head around the fact that the bulk of the money was made from something over which I had no creative control. Being a web geek, you make a product and then you charge for it.

I’m pretty sure that the answer to all this is to re-think what we think of as advertising. Display ads demonstrably don’t work for most organisations. What I’d like to encourage is to start to think about the tools that you offer around your content as advertising. It’s advertising that is functional and that people get use of. For example, imagine that content is re-used from your website on other networks – it’s published to Facebook, put up on Reddit, 500 people comment on it, etc. The discussion around it is not happening on the publisher’s website. So publishers need to start thinking about pushing tools where the first impulse should be not to put an ad at the bottom of a page, but perhaps a sign-in form that links their account to another website. To me, that is not a kind of direct advertising to a 3rd party necessarily, but advertising the brand itself.

What kind of plans does Readability have in terms of future innovation?

The big one is the release a version of our iOS application, which includes Top Reads. The latter is interesting because it’s algorithmically driven. A lot of work went on under the hood for that to make sure that it didn’t just bring the most popular results. So we’re applying a range of different metrics to get the most interesting results – one of which is the four-minute average I mentioned earlier. Coming from a magazine world where page views were paramount, it’s good to be focusing here on time spent on a page, so that’s our focus now. We’re also looking at some pretty major performance improvements and looking more at the platform itself.