Flipboard’s “Smart Magazines” are not magazines

Yes yes, I am nitpicking.

Last years Flipboard app redesign introduced something they call “smart magazines” into their app. The design team seem really smart, and did a great job of thinking about how to “…allow people to freely construct and access uniquely-tuned hierarchies of interest.”

I just don’t really understand why they call them “magazines.”

“It’s true that the signature feature of the new Flipboard is Smart Magazines — automatically updating ‘playlists’ of articles, photos, videos and audio around a topic.” -Mia Quagliarello

They’re still the same sort of aggregated streams, with no design consistency (down at the content level), no intentional (other than temporal) pacing, no end…They’re now just more finely tuned endless aggregated streams.

And once you select a story from the “magazine,” some may end up as tweets, others as websites, and occasionally some are paginated, slightly more “flipboard-like” things.

Here are some articles from my “Design Magazine.”

There seems to be no user-centered reason for why some articles natively flip, while other’s don’t. It probably has to do with whom they have content partnerships with. But they’re presented to us, the readers, in exactly the same way up until the actual content is loaded, and then the experience can get completely random.

Below are three examples of my “Design Magazine” from stream to article. Looks consistent at the top…

…but when i actually move into the stories: Font salad. UI salad. I experienced web popups (and even those kinds of “ads” that suddenly kick you out to the app store).

And let’s remember that it’s the content that is the pearl in the Flipboard clam.

Putting a new wrapper on the top layer of content does not a “magazine” make. While i’m sure their fantastic algorithm and addition of new sub-categories into a parent category does help to make it “smart,” it does not make it a “magazine.” Adding a skeuomorphic paper flip animation to procedurally designed text doesn’t either.

Speaking of that: any procedurally designed text forced into “pages” or “cards” inevitably has awkward moments:

In all honesty, this obsession with the flip animation feels a bit like putting the flip-cart before the content-horse. The brand is called “Flipboard,” I guess, so what can they do?

This is something fundamental. Attributing unnecessary traits to the concept of “magazine” are what lead to stuff like this.

“We need to look different than the web” they may be thinking. I get it, but in fact, the Flipbord app is “the web,” but with a new wrapper over my journey to it.

In the same way that “multiple columns of text” does not necessarily mean “magazine,” so “multiple static pages of text” does not necessarily have to mean “magazine.” These things are not fundamental to the idea of magazine, but were artifacts of the economics of scale in printing and folding paper with legible text.

I do agree that “uniquely-tuned hierarchies of interest” are often necessary to the concept of “magazine,” but I’m not certain they are always so. “Cat Fancy” was uniquely-tuned to be sure, but what of “People” or “Newsweek” magazines?

What Flipboard could do is just stop labelling these endless streams “magazines” or “smart magazines” or “Machine-Learning-a-Zines®” and call these “uniquely-tuned hierarchies of interest” something else. Passions?

/rant