We tend to overdo it online — from bloated Web sites packed with features the majority of users don’t want to fancy emails that get caught in spam filters or trashed without their images being loaded. And we find these overly complex initiatives difficult and expensive to maintain. They have user interfaces that are too packed or too subtle, which prove to inhibit usage. They have search engines with elements as puzzling as they are ineffective. We can be our own worst enemies online.
We could be on the brink of a second chance.
A recent manifesto entitled, “Subcompact Publishing,” by Craig Mod, calls for publishers to not make the same mistakes with their tablet versions. Mod’s point is that minimalism has many virtues, and the subcompact movement in automotive design represents a scaling back to essentials that transformed driving and cars in very positive ways — making autos more affordable, reliable, and durable by simplifying them toward their essential functions, and ditching non-essential aspects (fins, grills, chrome, and unreliable electronics). This is the basis of his metaphor, and the specifics are clear and compelling:
I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:
— Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
— Small file sizes
— Digital-aware subscription prices
— Fluid publishing schedule
— Scroll (don’t paginate)
— Clear navigation
— HTML(ish) based
— Touching the open web
Mod’s example is the Magazine, a new tablet-based publication that publishes a few medium-length articles on a variety of topics every two weeks, and charges $1.99 per month. Mod celebrates its approach as a realization of his constraints:
When I first saw The Magazine I smiled.
I smiled because it was so sensible, so rational, and so immediately obvious.
It felt like a platonic mobile-publishing container. No cruft, all substance. A shadow on the wall. The kind of app that’s doing nothing fancy but everything right. The kind of app deemed anathema by Future Publishing Authorities because, quite frankly, it’s boring.
This is the risk we all court — making technology to impress ourselves and one another, and losing sight of what users want and will use. I’ve argued before that if we had paid attention to this a decade ago, we would have built sites with simple HTML versions and PDFs, and saved ourselves and our users a lot of pain, and ourselves a lot of expense. Now that we have an opportunity to reorient to what the customer might want on their information-consumption devices of choice — tablets — let’s gain some inspiration from this quote from the master of deceptively simple design, Steve Jobs:
Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.