The next big thing

My plea for simplicity on the iPad

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As part of my many regular regional visits, I recently had the pleasure of meeting with the deputy general manager of Havas Media International in Paris. The breakfast meeting was meant to serve as an opportunity to update the agency on the success and future development of our apps given that we have been in market for over a year (a very long time in this new world). However, the meeting did not start the way I had intended. With fresh baked croissants placed on the table and formal introductions out of the way, I was met with the following statement:

“You know, Neelay, I have been reading The Economist iPad app regularly now, and I must say I am disappointed. I feel that it is flat and functionally boring.”

This is quite a scary observation coming from Havas, an incredibly important partner for the Central Europe region, who manages a great deal of the luxury brands that advertise within The Economist. What followed was a passionate 15-minute monologue, where I explained the following:

We purposefully focused on launching a product that would do exactly what our readers would expect, with the plan to then build and evolve from there. In order to ensure we did just that, we created a set of rules and a general philosophy to rationalize the rules, and then followed them dogmatically.

Instead of agonizing over what interesting rotating, sliding or zooming feature we could add, we instead agonized over:

– How to provide a reader with the satisfaction of having completed their version of The Economist.

– How to design a beautiful reading experience, including formatting article layouts and creating unique templates for each type of article.

–  How to create intuitive navigation, ensuring that our readers can always find exactly what they are looking for, while also allowing for discovery and serendipitous reading.

– How to facilitate an extremely fast download experience. Whether reading The Economist on a tablet or on a smartphone, we wanted the time from opening a new issue to reading an article to be less than 15 seconds.

– How to add an immersive listening experience. We wanted our audience to not only be able to read the articles, but to be able to listen to the articles online or offline. 

We also agonized over what not to include. We didn’t want any bells or whistles, or anything that would distract our readers from doing what they wanted, to finish reading their Economist each week.

Our approach of radical simplicity and ruthless attention to readability and finishability is what has led us to having over 600,000 unique devices accessing the apps each week, and over 125,000 digital-only subscribers (and growing).

Of course, we will certainly begin to take more and more advantage of device capabilities, but only if the additional features genuinely aid in providing the readers with the deep incisive analysis they’ve come to expect from The Economist. So yes, one may say that our app experience is flat and boring; however, I expect our readers would say that it is clean, simple and elegant. And most importantly, it’s exactly what they need.

After listening politely to my lengthy diatribe, the Havas deputy general manager waited for a brief moment and then said, “excellent, that is perfectly clear. Now let’s try and identify which of my brands would make a good fit within The Economist apps.” 

Confident in The Economist’s digital strategy, I picked up a croissant and we got to work.