Publishers should steal Pi foundation’s approach to digital magazines

If you’ve not read Wireframe, it’s a British fortnightly games magazine, largely aimed at people with an interest in creating games. I was fortunate enough to write for the debut issue (a fun overview of the explosions in arcade classic Defender), but am also very impressed by the user experience of the magazine itself.

This isn’t something addressed by a great deal of publishers – they either forget how magazines can work in the digital age, or they figure out ways to get more money from readers who prefer flexibility over a fixed format. By contrast, every single issue of Wireframe (and any other magazine from the Pi foundation) can be downloaded for free as a PDF.

It’s an interesting model – open and inclusive. If you genuinely can’t afford the mag, you can still read it. If you’re not sure about it, you can check out a couple of issues, after which you may well subscribe. (At least, if you believe it’s good to support media you love, lest it disappear.) And if you buy in stores or subscribe, you get the bonus of digital backups as a reward for your purchase.

I much prefer paper over digital. I can just about stomach comics on an iPad, but gloss over when it comes to magazines and prose books. But I also don’t want piles of paper magazines with the odd article I might want to refer to in future. Most publishers don’t care about this. It’s a weird stance.

Publishers should be trying to lock-in readers via subscriptions, and doing everything they can to keep them. Free digital back-ups (even if they aren’t ‘openly’ available) seem like a good bet. But mostly you see publishers trying to double dip – 30% off (or similar) if you buy both paper and digital subscriptions.

Technically, a paper mag and a digital mag are two separate items. I know purists who argue people shouldn’t rip media they own to digital, and would say you shouldn’t expect a free digital back-up of a paper magazine or comic that you buy. They’re right. However, we exist in a time where media is being shaken up. Major corporations are shifting to wider subscription models. You subscribe to all music, or all telly, or all comics. Gaming services like this are happening too. Want to keep your subscribers/buyers yourself? Then do better by them! Give them more!

Sure, you as a publisher or creator might be happier if I pay 50 quid for a year’s subscription and then 30 quid on top of that for some PDFs. But that just makes me feel like you’re squeezing me for every penny. But I’ll be more likely to stick around if you decide as a publisher to improve my user experience regardless.

So, to me, Wireframe and other Pi foundation mags are at the very top of the heap – the shining example. But print publishers needn’t go that far. They could still boost stickiness by locking PDFs/CBRs behind an account number, and give readers the best of both worlds – but not expect them to pay for the same content twice.

February 4, 2019. Read more in: Magazines, Opinions, Technology

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How old is too old to play videogames?

Over on Digitiser 2000, Paul ‘Mr Biffo’ Rose mulls over: how old is too old to play videogames? Only he puts a space in ‘videogames’, because of a traumatic experience with a production editor.

Anyway, his story is that having blasted the iconic Digitiser into millions of eyes in his 20s (and, more recently, endearingly bonkers YouTube telly show Digitiser), he now finds himself an old git, 48 years ‘young’, playing games. What a total man-child idiot! Except: no.

Frankly, I find it astonishing this is still a question people need to ask themselves. Games are just another thing people do to be entertained and pass the time. They are interactive entertainment that sits part-way between puzzle solving, dexterity test and television. No-one suggests at 36 you should throw your telly out of the window, or at that 43 you should stop doing crosswords. But gaming has somehow been labelled a juvenile pursuit.

In part, this is down to short memories. Arcade games when originally created were aimed squarely at adults. Early home-gaming systems were largely in that space, although often also marketed as family entertainment. It was mostly with the arrival of NES-era consoles that gaming took root as something ‘for the kids’. Only, those kids grew up, and a big chunk of gaming grew up with it. Today, the range of games you can access is huge, from tablet-based fare like Thinkrolls that my then0two-year-old managed to grasp on an iPad, through to the kind of content that no-one under 18 should really be setting their eyes on.

Any negativity is really just another oft-repeated hot-take by curmudgeons and spoilsports who hate people liking stuff that they themselves don’t like. Comics? Pah! Those are for children! (What, even Saga? OK, then.) Tabletop gaming? Are you twelve? You still watch Doctor Who? Pfft! Etc!

A few years back, I wrote a piece for Stuff that sums this up, and I stand by it. In short, like what you like, and – assuming it doesn’t negatively impact on others (i.e. I’m not going to support, say, your desire to catapult parked cars at supermarkets) – nuts to everyone else. So you want spend evenings building a Picade retro-gaming console, like I did, to tinker with ancient games in your spare time? Go you! You prefer Harry Potter over more ‘worthy’ books bothering the fiction charts? Have fun with it! You want to settle down of an evening with MarioKart rather than EastEnders? Queen-Vic-You-Don’t!

You’re not too old to do the things you like. Instead, as you get older, you should cram more of what you love into those years you have left, not discard them because some miserable gits disapprove.

January 10, 2019. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

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Trying to explain reduce motion to designers who don’t have a vestibular disorder

With my recent griping about Apple and reduce motion, I should note many other companies/designers fail this test. The web remains rife with such issues, as does the app and gaming ecosystem.

In part, I can understand why. Vestibular issues are weird. I never used to have one, and now I do. I’ve no idea where it came from. It also makes little logical sense to people. They think I’m lying that I get triggered by animations because I also write about videogames. But here’s the thing: I’m fine with racing games, just as I’m fine with roller-coasters. Whatever’s going on in my head manifests when 1) too much of my focus is taken over by a screen, and; 2) whatever’s happening on the screen is outside of my control.

So I can play Super Duper Racing Games VI, but an abrupt full-screen slide transition in an otherwise static puzzle game on the iPad might make me woozy for hours. This is why iOS 7’s transitions were a problem for many people – they couldn’t be ‘prepared’ for. That sounds weird, I know, and I recognise it’s tricky for designers to test against. You can have a crack at dealing with visual impairment by using your app or website with your eyes closed. Vestibular issues? Nope. So you need to fallback on testing and rules.

The first of those is pretty simple: find some people who have such issues, and ask them if your app/website causes problems, and for suggestions on how to fix it. On iOS, this might simply mean adding a preference to toggle some animations, such as parallax backgrounds. Regarding rules, ask yourself: do I really need this animation? Do I really need that full-window slide transition? In book and comic apps, can I offer an option to turn off transitions entirely? Have I checked transitions elsewhere within our apps?

The last of those is where Apple fails. The company’s accessibility people have been broadly impressive when it comes to being reactive to comments and requests I’ve made. But it seems there’s no systematic checking of triggers throughout the operating system. That might sound like I’m asking for too much, but if you have reduce motion baked in at system level, use it! It’s absurd to create something that can make millions of people’s lives better, and then pepper the OS and first-party apps with slide animations.

In a sense, I’m fortunate. After I figured out I have this issue (back in the Mac OS X Lion era, where I felt sick for days), I can usually recover from being blasted within minutes; if not, it takes a few hours. I’ve heard from people who can be knocked out for days.

So as web/app designers, ask yourself: what can I do to improve my work for people with vestibular disorders? And then think widely: what can I do to make my content accessible to everyone? That should be the goal of computing, not saying “well, just don’t use that”.

October 16, 2018. Read more in: Apple, Design, Opinions

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Reduce Motion doesn’t reduce motion in the macOS Mojave App Store

Accessibility rants on this blog are like busses. One doesn’t show up for ages, and now two are belching fumes into your face.

So, anyway, I just opened the App Store app on macOS Mojave, and I had the audacity to click on something that was featured and looked quite interesting. WHOOSH went the full-window slide transition. BLORCH went my innards. Through squinting eyes I then did a bit more testing. Clicking Done made the window zoom downwards again. And then I clicked a standard list item. WHOOSH went the full-window slide transition, but, excitingly, in a different direction this time (horizontally). GAH went my brain, asking me to JUST SODDING STOP WITH THIS STUPID EXPERIMENT ALREADY.

But, come on, Apple – what is going on here? This kind of thing is not a surprise. I and others have been writing about motion triggers on iOS and macOS for years now. I thought you’d finally got it right when you added Reduce Motion to macOS. But no. Because someone at the Apple interface team is apparently addicted to swoopy whooshy animations, and because apparently no-one thinks to actually test them against accessibility controls, it seems people who have vestibular disorders get to play a fun game of Russian roulette with their wellbeing every time Apple releases a new app.

Sorry, but this is not good enough. Apple is often rightly lauded for its accessibility stance; but as I’ve said before that means accessibility for all, not just the cool stuff that gets the headlines.

(And in case anyone’s wondering, yes I have already emailed accessibility at apple dot com about these issues.)

(Oh, and anyone who dislikes transitions of this type, probably don’t bother with News nor Stocks for macOS either.)

October 15, 2018. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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In macOS Mojave, Reduce transparency has broken logic and terrible design

I have motion issues, which I’ve written about on this blog before. I got sick from Mac OS X Lion and iOS 7, due to the animations Apple welded to them. Fortunately, the iOS team recognised the problems fairly quickly; the macOS team… less so, although the Mac did eventually get a Reduce motion control in the Display section of Accessibility.

Even so, I’ve long believed the Mac team doesn’t fully understand visual/balance accessibility issues, and isn’t good with details, and that opinion is rather upheld with Reduce transparency.

The standard macOS interface has quite a few semi-transparent elements, which like frosted glass provide a glimpse of what’s beneath them. At Apple events, execs go giddy about how pretty this is. In use, these elements vary from being distracting to outright dangerous. For example, if you have a motion-sickness issue and an animating web page is sitting behind a semi-transparent element, it can take a while before you realise it’s affecting you, by which time it’s too late and you’re already dizzy.

“Fine”, says Apple, grumpily, “so just turn on Reduce transparency”. Only it’s not that simple. Because when you do, Apple designers get in a strop and hurl logic out of the window. What you’d expect to happen is for macOS to remove the semi-transparent bits. So instead of Finder sidebars or the macOS app switcher showing what’s beneath them, they’d just have a neutral solid background. Nope. Instead, in its infinite wisdom, Apple’s decided those components should instead be coloured by your Desktop background.

This makes no logical sense. Why should the colour of an interface component be influenced by elements that may be several layers beneath them? Also, this decision can make interface elements less accessible, because you end up with an inconsistent interface (colours shifting as you move a window around the screen) and can impact on legibility (such as when moving a Finder window to the right on the default background, whereupon the sidebar goes a weird brown colour).

In tech circles, there’s the phrase ‘dogfooding’. This refers to ‘eating your own dog food’ – in other words, testing your own products in real-world usage. It feels like although Apple is happy to add accessibility controls to macOS, and regularly enthuses about such things relating to people who are blind, its internal teams need to down a whole lot more dog food regarding visual/balance elements. Apple prides itself on sweating the details when it comes to hardware; it needs to do the same with its system software too.


Update: 512 Pixels has created a gallery to illustrate the problem.

October 15, 2018. Read more in: Apple, Design, Opinions, Technology

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