NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Rocks!

In short, the NY Times web app on Google WebStore is all kinds of awesome. For the slightly detailed version of why I think so you will need to read further.

Why is NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Special?

The NY Times app has to be viewed in the specific context it lives in. The factors as I see it are

i) News business model is disrupted, to put it mildly. Follow NeimanLab or Clay Shirky to understand how the internet has changed the rules for news firms.

ii) Adoption of Smart Devices like Apple’s iPad, iPhone and various tablet devices have added to the challenges of news firms. Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this new distribution channel and how these technology advancements can be used to present this content.

iii) The need to differentiate with quality of news and how its presented. Quality is firmly under the scope of editor-journalist world view and the market’s demand for it. And presentation is a function of technology and the narrative devices the editor-journalist wishes to use.

iv) Ability of large organizations, not just within the news industry, to see the writing on the wall and proactively take measures to address them. Not the half-hearted lame moves that pleases the proletariat and does little to materially improve their situation or at least help understand the ground reality better.

I have to acknowledge that there are lots more organizations that are at the edge of how content can be packaged and delivered. I would quote Flipboard as an example, my earlier post on them is here. Flipboard innovates in presenting content that arrive as links via Twitter and Facebook streams in a magazine format on the iPad.

Web News UX Evolved

Now let us go through some screenshots with a brief description of each.

The home page is a really standard view, nothing special here. But neat typography, a clean layout and not complicated. On the right hand side is a tabular menu that lists the various sections. Clicking each section provides a fluid page transition behavior.

A little subtlety around the scroll behavior. Its like having the newspaper on a 2 dimensional plane. Vertical scrolls are between sections and horizontal within sections. Try using the scroll arrows in the app and you will experience this.

Clicking ‘Customize’ option brings up the customization interface, almost like a designer mode. You will see that the tabular menu has changed now to show a list of options. The next screenshot has a better view of the options here.

Each option is a theme, again nothing special. But the point is this, for a large traditional news firm to get it to this extent is nothing short of amazing. This is standard HTML content, rendered in different layouts, or should I say mashed up differently, based on the theme chosen. The default theme applied is titled ‘Serendipity’ and its visible in the first 2 screenshots you see above.

The ‘Doric’ theme is a columnar layout, presumably a reference to Doric columns of Ancient Greek Architecture. In my book even a passing reference to Greece gets the inner nerd all jelly-like.

The ‘Flow’ layout is quite interesting. Its like a Web 2.0 style word-cloud but with titles and a brief description all laid out end to end in a sequence. Ideal to quickly scan titles, without the distraction of pictures.

Or if you really prefer the staid but efficient line based interface, much like RSS readers, then you would like the ‘Lines’ theme.

Other themes are Gallery(for of course a gallery of images contained within each article), Stack(a stack of articles one over the other..), Slideshow etc. There is another theme called Priority but I could not quite figure how the priority was being decided, especially whether it is curated by a human or an algorithm.

NY Times Could Do More

I see the theme infrastructure ripe for extension. I can think of a few options:

i) Better Filters: Category based filters and popularity(most emailed, commented etc.) is already available. But let us say we could filter this by region, and tie it to my social graph. Then I get a Flipboard-like experience of NY Times news.

ii) Sharing: Right now it is possible to share articles to Twitter, Facebook etc. But within this interface I would love to be able to see how popular an article is. FriendFeed and Feedly already do this by indicating popularity against each article.

iii) Consumption-based Customization: Right now categories are defined upfront and I get to apply themes within them. In addition I would like to see news customized for me based on my past consumption patterns and working out with which news topic I have engaged the post. Bubble up these suggestions automatically under the Serendipity theme. Until I ask why a particular option has been suggested don’t offer the information to me. Pandora’s web interface does this rather well, by giving details on why a particular song has been suggested.

There is lots more I wish to guess about here, especially about i) the workflow that might surround the publishing system here ii) how the iPad form-factor has clearly influenced the design thinking here iii) how a HTML UX is comparable to what a native smart device can provide etc. But will stop here for now.

What do you think, am I justified in my excitement? Or are these fan-boy symptoms?

Deep Linking or Winer Links

Couple of key innovations out this week from NY Times. Very small but when done at scale can allow mainstream adoption of deep linking.

What is deep linking. For example if you have a link to a page then deep link would point you to a specific section within the page. So a dual action is performed – first navigate to the page and then navigate to the section within the page.

So what are the innovations?

Permalink to any paragraph on the NY Times website

Head over now to NY Times, hit Shift key twice in succession and you will see the paragraph mark, Pilcrows, appear. Try it now, I shall be around. Each paragraph mark provides a link to itself directly.

Now intra page links have always been available using the named section approach. So what makes this special? Instead of the content creator deciding upfront what sections should be marked out for navigation, the ability to generate links to a paragraph is baked into the infrastructure. The syntax is simple too, it uses the named section idiom by appending a name after the #. You just add the letter ‘p’ followed by the paragraph number.

Now this is not a new innovation. Dave Winer, the guru of RSS spec, has been doing this on his Scripting.com site for ages. Check Winer’s coverage of NY Times implementing this feature. But for someone with the reach of NY Times to do this makes it ready for mainstream consideration and adoption.

Highlight any paragraph or sentence(s)

This feature extends the idiom of the paragraph linking mentioned above. Just that it highlights a paragraph or a sentence or even a set of sentences. If you need to do this for multiple sections or sentences you could just append the required markup together.

Benefits of Paragraph Permalinks and Highlight Idioms

The benefit is not just time saved for the content creator. It could go to the very root of how content is packaged, distributed, consumed, commented upon and tracked. The creator of the page provides his view of packaging his content. Consumers can subsequently opine about specific sections, have conversations around them and more. They can also assemble sections of content from different pages and further distribute it. Permalinks and ability to highlight sections, using both these approaches, will be available by naturally extending the idioms that the Web infrastructure already provides.

WordPress Plug-in

This blog too has Winer Links implemented. Go to any post instead of the home page and you can see it action. For example check this post. You can implement this on your WordPress site too using the excellent plug-in by Daniel Bachhuber called WinerLinks.

Anyway, that is my take on this feature. What do you think? You should add comments below on what you think.