Google News on the iPad

Posted in iPad, Uncategorized, UX Design by Protopop on July 16, 2010

In June Google launched a redesigned Google News U.S. edition, a design that immediately  came under fire for its busy layout and 1 column design. Users are forced to sign in if they want to customize the page for a more usable experience.   And while the new experience on the desktop has disappointed , the Google News redesign has become an inefficient multi-step process  on the iPad.

The Original Google News on the iPad

Google News originally has a two column page spanning layout that worked well for many years. Headlines were easy to scan bold type. Columns were fluid and adapted to your browser page width. The page was highly readable without having to sign in. I can still access this old layout by visiting the Canadian version of Google news.

On the iPad, reading this layout is a 1 step process

Step 1 – The Original Layout (via Google News Canada)

Screenshot of Google News Canada on the Apple iPad

Screenshot of Google News Canada on the Apple iPad

The original layout is ready to read from the get go. The 2 column layout is very readable and fluid. Bold headlines are consistent down the page and easily read. News items are grouped into sections as in traditional newspapers. The option to customize the page is subtle and non intrusive. Since the focus of the page is news stories, and not the power of customization, this enhances the usability of the page. As soon as I arrive on this page I’m ready to browse it. As usual, Google has done an excellent job and provided a clean, much needed service.

The Google News Redesign on the iPad

The Google News redesign on the iPad forces me to undergo extra steps every time I reach the page before it is ready for scanning. Google has also backtracked somewhat by reintroducing the option for a 2 column layout. However, since the immovable right column  remains, what we really have is a cramped three column layout (with one non-fluid right column and wasted whitespace on the left) that I can’t imagine will satisfy many people.

Step 1 – Close the Personalization box (1 click)

Google News US edition on the Apple iPad

Step 1 - visit Google News US

If you clear your cookies or have cookies disabled in Safari on the iPad, the rather large personalization box will appear each time you visit Google News.  With the wasted space , intrusive personalization and weather boxes, I am still a few steps away from settling in to scan the page. Please note that I’m using the terminology “click’ here to refer to the ‘touch’ action on touchscreens that is the analogous to mouse clicks action on desktops.

Step 2 – Close the Weather Widget options (3 Clicks)

Google News US - closing the Weather Widget

Google News US - closing the Weather Widget

Much better. Questionable design elements like non-bold headlines outside the top stories, lack of subject grouping and wasted whitespace remain. But thanks to an update today, we can now get rid of the weather widget on the right. Incidentally, the weather widget determines your location and delivers temperatures in Fahrenheit. If you are reading the page in most countries other than the United States, you will still see the temperature in Fahrenheit even though you use the metric system, Celsius. If the box is smart enough to figure out my location, it should return the results in units that hold relevance to me. That said, to close the weather widget

  1. click on the ‘edit’ link on top of the weather box to open the options
  2. deselect ‘show weather for this location’ in the options
  3. click on ‘save changes’ button to close the options

Step 3 – Enable Sections (1 Click)

Google News US without Personalization or Weather Boxes

Google News US without Personalization or Weather Boxes

Now we have a news page that has no personalization or weather boxes. However there is no grouping of news items by subject. Essentially the page is one big smorgasbord of stories. Why does this matter? Compare the original Page grouping with the current ones

Original Google News Groupings

  • Top Stories (analogous to a newspaper front page)
  • World
  • US
  • Business
  • Sci/Tech
  • Entertainment
  • Sports
  • Health

These are based on near universal groupings of some of the largest human disciplines. It has worked well for newspapers for over a century. And while I don’t think that the physical pulp and paper aspect of newspapers will be around much longer, I do think that many of the journalistic and organizing principles that newspapers have fine tuned and honed over the years are very valuable, and have value in the Google News format as a way to organize stories by subject matter.

Current Google News Groupings (iPad Default)

  • Top Stories
  • Recent
  • Local
  • Spotlight
  • Most Popular

For me, the difference between these grouping is far less powerful that the original ones. There is more difference between, say, SciTech and Business than there is between ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Recent’. In fact, if I were trying to simplify things, I’d argue that the differences between ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Recent’, as well as’ Spotlight’ and ‘Most Popular’ are negligible in comparison and quite arbitrary. It’s as if Google News is giving us a page full of arbitrary stories so that we’ll be encouraged to sign in just so we can maintain a personalized experience that has some semblance of organization, something we were originally getting for many years without signing in.

Armed with the ‘why’ of ‘why we need to enable sections’, we can now do it by clicking on the ‘sections’ button in the ‘News for you’ area. Unfortunately this will only organize the stories below by topic, the immutable right column remains organized by the vague topics above.

5 Clicks Later

So what does 5 clicks get you on the iPad? Let’s compare the original and new layout (with our clicks applied)

Google News Comparison - Old vs New Layout

Google News Comparison - Old vs New Layout

In my opinion, the original provides a better news browsing experience on the iPad.

  • I need to go through 5 clicks upon visiting Google News US  every time I clear my cookies or have cookies disabled on the iPad in order to get something that resembles the usability of the original Google News
  • I need to go through 1 click if cookies are enabled and i have preciously closed the personalization and weather boxes. 1 Additional click every time i visit Google News US adds up
  • The resulting layout still does not serve me as intuitively as the original

The 2 Column Option Returns

When I read this morning that Google had relented and provided a 2 column option I breathed a sigh of relief.  However, the implementation is near useless on the iPad. Since the immutable right column remains, what we essential get is a very cramped 4 column layout. A better option is for the 2 column to really mean 2 column, not 2 with  side columns. For some reason Google is very adamant about the presence of their new right fixed width, random story column. Until they become flexible on this point we won’t have the true 2 column usability of the original.

2 Column option on Google News actually creates a cramped 4 column layout

2 Column option on Google News actually creates a cramped 4 column layout

Cookies and New Pages

It’s worth mentioning one more time that all of these personalizations are useless if you are not signed in and clear your cookies and/or have cookies disabled. Upon revisiting Google News US you’ll be presented with the default layout again, including the lack of sections, intrusive personalization box and weather box. Opening a new page in Safari will also reset the ‘Sections’ to the default ungrouped layout upon returning to the Google News page.


Google is great. It’s not a stretch for me to say this. Google News. Search. Gmail. Google Earth. Google has provided us with so many terrific services for free. But now we seem to be getting to a point where signing in is becoming an increasing necessity in order to get usable services. This is completely within Google’s rights as a for profit company, but it’s not what i signed up for, and is not what attracted me to Google in the first place.

I am perfectly happy to sign in when it’s necessary – I sign into Gmail, Twitter and Facebook all the time and am glad to do it. But those services REQUIRE personalization (ie sign in) in order to function because my emails and tweets are my own. Reading news should not require personalization.  It even brings with it sizable and problematic philosophical issues about reading only what we want to read and limiting our exposure to new ideas.

The hobbled usability of Google News is in my opinion a painfully transparent attempt to force personalization and sign in where the need did not exist in the first place. I hope Google will learn from this just as I learn from them, and implement a solution that will leave users impressed and gasping for more. Most of us are or have been Google fans at one point or another. Let’s hope they are able to continue the tradition of simple, usable and useful services.

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iPad, Flash and the Mobile Web

Posted in Flash, iPad by Protopop on January 28, 2010

The lack of Flash support on the iPad is a serious blow to the identity of Flash.

I became a Flash designer because of 2 things – its unrestrained creative freedom to deliver almost anything i could think of making, and its cross platform and deep penetration across the internet.  Now I could create beautiful things and share them with the world.  Well, that world has become increasingly mobile in mind and market share. And it’s a world from which Flash is being largely excluded.

First, kudos.  I love Flash, I do.  And if you didn’t love it too it wouldn’t inflame such passion and give rise to so many blog posts.  Flash isn’t under attack because of it’s a poor product. On the contrary, it’s like an athlete at the Olympics going for gold.  Flash is so great at so many things that we just want it to be even better – perfect perhaps.  But Flash has been denied perfection because of 2 fatal flaws in its DNA.

First, it’s proprietary technology, and this is an ugly truth that I try to forget every time I use it.  It’s owned and operated by ‘Big Design’ (you know who you are) and although their intentions and efforts are noble, it still remains a closed platform and cannot achieve the adoption rates and democratic zeitgeist of open source standards like HTML.

Second is performance which, backroom deals aside, has been a large deterrent to its adoption on mobile devices.  Yes, apparently Flash and Flash lite players are available on millions of mobile devices.  Well I’ve been developing flash apps for years and honestly I wouldn’t know it.  Flash has a history of poor performance on Macs so I can understand why the Mac faithful haven’t been rushing to defend a platform that’s forsaken their interests for a long time. Performance anxiety is not only the result of the Flash player itself either, which is a beautiful and compact piece of software engineering (if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be having this discussion).  Flash developers are an industrious creative lot who love nothing more than to create something they said couldn’t be created.  As such you have a huge ecosystem of flash media on the web pushing the boundaries of even new PC performance.  How could this ever be restrained to the emerging mobile ecosystem that thrives on prudent power consumption?

Enter the iPad.

The wild success of the iPhone and iPod Touch had Flash developers scurrying into Apple App development, and with good reason.

Beyond the ability to browse in the bathroom (you do it too), they offered a relatively open ecosystem and a ‘for-dummies’ ecommerce infrastructure that let small developers make more than a few dollars while expressing themselves creatively.

Now the iPad offers people a sexy new way to experience the internet, and at 499 and up, it’s going to sell millions. Apple’s share of the mobile market space is already huge and the iPad will just see this share grow.  And guess what? Flash will not be invited to the party.  So it’s decided to crash it in the form of Flash CS5’s admittedly nifty Mac App export tool.

The problem with Adobe’s answer to Flash on the iPhone is this: By restricting it (not by their choice) to the app store ecosystem they are erasing many things that make Flash Flash, the most important being delivery by web browser, perhaps THE defining quality of Flash, erased like it never existed.  No longer the clever way to circumvent Big Media and deliver content straight to The People without big budgets, it becomes a ‘me too’ entry into Apple’s App Store ecosystem. It becomes subject to the developer fees and approval process of the App Store queue, which, while hardly exorbitant or stifling, represents quite a change in pipeline for developers accustomed to few restraints on creative freedom.

It also positions Flash as an application development platform rather than a web browsing experience.  This is a well deserved position since Adobe has made great strides to develop Actionscript 3 as a robust and powerful language in its own right.  Just be aware it comes with it’s own identity crisis for Flash.  Is it the best way to reach millions via the web, in which case it should be available on the exponentially growing mobile market, or is it an application development tool, in which case we should see performance boosts equal to other app development frameworks like c++ and Cocoa.

Hello Standards

So then, what’s the sexy new way to circumvent authority?

Well it turns out that it’s something that wasn’t so sexy in the first place.  Standards, in the form of HTML 5, CSS and a renaissance in Javascripting that sees it compared to early versions of  actionscript.  Because standards are open source and accessible to all, they are used by literally everyone. Compare the number of people who have created a web page or read one to the number of people who have created a App or used one and the difference becomes apparent.  Like politicians swayed by populist chants, big companies like Apple, Google and (even though they seem to resist it tooth and nail) Microsoft embrace and adopt standards like HTML or face the consequences. Imagine a web browser that didn’t run javascript.  Now THAT would be a deal breaker.

Standards become the new-meets-old way to again reach the masses, unrestrained by corporate interests or approval. Look at Google’s latest version of Google Voice.  When Apple said NO! to the App Store version, Google went ahead and created a web browser version that sidesteps the App Store and proves to be almost just as functional.  What’s Apple going to do? Restrict people from visiting certain web pages that break their terms of service or compete with their app store infrastructure?  Web developers are finding out that their javascript transitions and database signups work just as seamlessly on the iPhone as on the PC. Standards are getting a lot of love.

So we’re left with the big quandary.  Flash does so many things right.  It’s increasingly open source. Performance has increased. 3D in flash is really coming on strong. All’s right on the left side of the brain.  But on the other side, the concept of Flash as a technology that can reach anyone anywhere (in other words, via the web browser) is eroding.  And the thing about standards is that they are great when it comes to accessibility, but unless you’re a creative genius they just aren’t up to snuff (yet) when it comes to delivering the rich media (ugg…) experience that proprietary plugins like Flash and Unity can deliver. I waited YEARS for 3d to come to browser via software based Flash and hardware accelerated Unity 3D.  Now I’m told i can’t have it if i want unfettered reach to the mobile market, and I have to run back to standards.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s what I’m going to do for the time being.  I’m going to continue to use Flash with the queasy, back-of-my-mind understanding that it’s a proprietary technology with performance issues, and both will need to be addressed eventually with the mobile market.  I’m going to adopt HTML 5/CSS/Javascript everywhere possible whenever it can replace flash. This means cookies/databases instead of shared objects.  jQuery instead of Flash transitions.  Open video instead of swf players. I’m going to enjoy the power of plugins like Unity and Flash as a way to deliver a powerful creative experience while hoping against hope that they too will become so essential that companies like Apple will be forced to adopt them in the browser.  All the while knowing that if people want platforms like the iPad to adopt Flash without question there is only one surefire way to do it.

Turn it into an open standard.  I mean an open standard like HTML, not corporate initiatives with the word OPEN attached to them.  Actionscript that everyone can contribute to.  Free players for all.  Open source the entire thing and make money Adobe by selling the best IDE’s to harness the power of a newly open sourced phenomenon.

Let’s face it.  There’s an opening for an open source, non-proprietary, performance savvy method of delivering rich media experiences on the mobile and non-mobile web.  Who ever fills it is going to have the future in their hands.