The future of content / publishing, product design opportunities.

Subcompact Publishing — by Craig Mod.

Brilliant essay from Craig Mod of Flipboard on how we could rethink the design of solutions in content and publishing. I think he’s hit the nail on the head on how we could be doing a better job with solutions rather than simply transferring mental models and interaction design over from the physical.

Interesting points:

The views of existing content publishers: “The perception of the incoming disruptors is that they are low quality and therefore not really worth paying attention to.” Joshua Benton remarked this to Clayton Christensen, who knows a thing or two about low price disruptors eating incumbent lunches.

The Subcompact Car = Minimum Viable Car: Where are the digital publishing subcompacts then?

Usability between physical and digital content: Tablets and smartphones don’t have the same obviousness in interaction design, but therein lies an opportunity.

Publishing Technology Startups: Could be previously categorized into technologists disconnected from traditional content ecosystems and incumbents of traditional content ecosystems disconnected from technology. Both were needed before, but not as much now as new breeds of content producers emerge – both technically proficient and producing high quality content. See Twitter vs. traditional news media on covering stories – there is a rapidity to the former but a quality to the latter – find someplace in the middle.

Great description for emerging content niches: Matter isn’t quite a website, it’s not really a magazine, and it’s not exactly a book publisher either. Instead, Matter is something else – a new model for high quality journalism.” Buying an article gets you an ad free web edition, eBook for Kindle, iPad and other readers, Q&A with the author. Memberships include a seat on their editorial board. They focus on building their most valuable asset – the community. How much does your average magazine or newspaper subscription get you?

Skeuomorphic Design: Rather than just blindly bringing over physical predecessor design, there’s an opportunity to rethink what’s most vital and where something better can be done digitally. Matter has an outstanding understanding of editorial ethics, storytelling and craft, then changes the shape of the content and distribution models to what’s now possible with digital. Magazine design parameters (# of articles, monthly publishing schedule, article bundling) are decisions driven by physical content distribution and production constraints. They don’t need to carry over.

The Subcompact Content Manifesto:

  • Require few to no instructions, understood on first blush, clear navigation
  • Editorial and design decisions are based on the constraints of digital as a means of distribution and consumption
  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue), small file sizes
  • Digital aware subscription prices (No one is going to pay the same amount for a download as a book).
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • HTMLish based
  • Connects to the open web – I cannot tell you how much I love seeing an Ebook with embedded links to additional media.

Small file size: Speed should be what you optimize for in content smaller than a book but bigger than a tweet.

Reasonable subscription prices: Should reflect the lower cost of doing business digitally, not the cost of protecting print subscriptions.

Fluid publishing schedule: Depending on the length / complexity of the content. Daily schedules work for blogs, hours/minutes for tweets, weeks for digital content, no more monthly schedules, books beyond that timeframe.

Scroll rather than paginate: Engineering costs are usually too high for beautiful, simple and fast pagination and doesn’t make sense for subcompact content publishing. Scrolling is simpler for navigation and better mental models for users. No pagination is better than poor pagination.

Clear Navigation: Nail the mental models – it shouldn’t require a how to or tutorial before people can start consuming content. This is more or less my design philosophy.

HTMLish based: including ePub or Mobi or other formats with HTML pedigrees. Indisputably the future format for all text and maybe also interactive content. Most all computing devices come with high quality HTML rendering engines built in, so take advantage of the existing infrastructure.

Think about the jobs to be done: classic quote from Clayton Christensen perfectly relevant to rethinking digital content publishing.

The basic idea is that people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution—and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service.

The key insight from thinking about your business this way is that it is the job, and not the customer or the product, that should be the fundamental unit of analysis.

I’m waiting in line for coffee and have ten minutes to kill. 

Customer facing RSS: I love RSS but this is a great idea – make it easier and cheaper for people to subscribe to content authors and producers for a sensible cost. Although I question whether the economics can be reversed from the point that most people expect certain types of content to be free instead of behind just another pay wall. Maybe the higher signal to noise ratio in subcompact publishing will warrant a long tail type of subscription plan. Mod addresses this with comments on designing for the open web as well as having a call to pay action.

Marco Arment: Whose Instapaper app I love, behind The Magazine recently launched, nails the subcompact publishing ethos. This is the first time I’ve heard the table of contents icon called the “hamburger” but it is perfect. Paul Graham talks about the kind of programmer Marco is in the recent Startup Ideas essay – “not just a publishing-interested engineer, he’s a subcompact publishing magnate”:

Knowing how to hack also means that when you have ideas, you’ll be able to implement them. That’s not absolutely necessary (Jeff Bezos couldn’t) but it’s an advantage. It’s a big advantage, when you’re considering an idea like putting a college facebook online, if instead of merely thinking “That’s an interesting idea,” you can think instead “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll try building an initial version tonight.” It’s even better when you’re both a programmer and the target user, because then the cycle of generating new versions and testing them on users can happen inside one head.

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