Our Choice

Monday, May 02, 2011

Yesterday Push Pop Press launched Our Choice, an interactive book by Al Gore about global warming for the iPad (and iPhone). I put iPhone in parentheses because right now all eyes are on the iPad, especially given the lackluster performance of The Daily after its much-anticipated debut.

I’ve written about iPad magazines before, and I’ve used a lot of the ones out there, many of which were made with Adobe’s Digital Publishing suite. I can’t say I know everything there is to know about adapting the printed word to tablets (I think that title currently belongs to Craig Mod), but I have worked on an app that does just that, and I know quite a bit about what’s doable and what’s not doable on an iPad. And taken as a whole, Our Choice is the best effort I’ve seen by far.

Here are my impressions of the app (app-book? book-app?) so far:

It begins with a video of (who else) Al Gore, explaining the purpose of the book and the research behind it, and then launches into a tutorial covering how to get around and interact with the app.

After the credits, the first screen of the app is a slowly rotating 3D model of our planet. Your location is marked on its surface with the standard pulsing blue dot, and a voiceover of Al Gore begins telling you the story of global warming. If you tap the planet, you can see it spin around and transform into an artist’s rendering of the earth ravaged by mankind’s apathy. It’s not a pretty picture.

For some reason (I’d guess time constraints), landscape is the only option. Chapter headings are shown on top, and you can swipe through chapters and view their contents in a separate, scrollable area at the bottom. Swiping through that area will show each page as a small thumbnail which you can then pinch or tap to expand and begin reading.

I found the landscape reading experience on the iPhone to be sub-par, and the mid-sized text (which is not adjustable on either device) necessitates a lot of swiping to get through a single chapter. I’ll give the designer points, however, for creating a different layout for iPhone and iPad, rather than shrinking down the iPad layout to fit. Two-column text would definitely not work in this layout on the the smaller screen.

Reading in landscape was better on the iPad, but I still wish there was an option in both versions to read in single-column portrait mode with a scroll. I’m not alone in my distaste for horizontal scrolling on tablets, and it just feels more natural when I’m reading to hold the tablet upright like a folded-back magazine, rather than horizontally like a book. This is probably because the iPad has no spine—while I can cradle a book in my hand while turning the pages, I can do no such thing with a tablet computer.

The other annoying thing about the page navigation as it stands is that there’s no reference for where you are in a chapter. There’s no progress indicator, and more importantly there are no page numbers on the pages themselves, making it impossible to direct someone to a particular page in the book. “Go to chapter three, scroll to the middle, and find the page before the second infographic” doesn’t quite cut it.

Chapters load dynamically, and the app’s initial download from the App Store was so quick that it was done by the time I checked. Overall, it looks like they did a good job with the architecture, and are probably using some kind of template-based system with dynamic text rather than exporting and downloading static pages. This is also the only practical way I can think of to pull off the drag-and-drop multimedia trickery that makes the app pop so much in the demo. To do this, they’re probably using low-level text layout APIs which don’t support text selection rather than just rendering web pages, so text is not selectable.

Speaking of multimedia, I like the solution they’ve come up with for interactive content, and the infographics are all well thought-out and easy to navigate. When necessary there’s a little white dot that traces out where the user can move her finger for more information, and the graphics animate smoothly and flawlessly as they transform to reveal different stages of ice decay or the breakdowns of different categories of emissions.

The way they handle images is interesting, and while they’re gimmicky I actually like the fold-out images. In some places (like the penguin image early on) they actually have a conceptual link with the text that’s revealed when expanding them. The map links are fantastic and the fact that they highlight the photo’s location and the reader’s place on the map lends an interesting sense of perspective to the narrative. I also liked the audio commentary, which is short, to the point, and clearly marked by a little round progress indicator that morphs back into an audio icon when it finishes.

The animations in general are beautiful. Pages transition seamlessly, and the whole experience was very snappy on my iPhone 4. You can see they sweated the details, and there are lots of nice little touches, like the way images bounce gently back into their place in the grid when you close the fullscreen view. And the app seems relatively stable; I had one crash in about an hour’s use on the iPad when swiping quickly through chapters.

The navigation from chapters to pages is pretty obvious, although one person I showed it to tried to pinch the chapter cover image to open the text and was surprised when it didn’t respond. He did not, however, have the benefit of the tutorial. Generally I err on the side of not doing tutorials at app launch, the reason being that if you have to explain to a user how a UI works, you probably haven’t thought it through well enough.

Still, there are some glaring omission. Where’s the table of contents? Search is missing as well. The only way to navigate through the book is by swiping from page to page or from chapter to chapter. While this may be the way we navigate physical books, at least then we have the benefit of page numbers, tables of contents and indexes to help us find what we want quickly.

I also wonder whether or not the reading experience on the iPad will be good enough to make this book sticky. I read the intro and most of the first chapter, then skimmed the rest of it. I don’t know if I could see myself sitting down with this on the iPad and reading it for an extended period of time. A shorter, more compact app, while not allowing for anywhere near the same level of detail and breadth of content, might be more sticky and have a better long-term payoff in citizen involvement.

It’s important to note that I’m splitting hairs. This really is a great app, and I haven’t seen anything near this level of polish on an iPad publication before. Push Pop has done a fantastic job, and I’m excited to see what their team will come up with in the future.

Let’s Make Something Awesome