Interaction does not equal engagement

  • 1 August 2013

I fancy myself a pretty clever fellow, but I never learned to master the standard clothesline model of iPad magazine navigation. That’s where the pages of an individual article are scrolled vertically, from top to bottom, while the articles are arranged next to each other as if hanging off a line.

It seems as though I’m not alone in this predicament. Take a look at a magazine laid out in this style, and I bet you’ll see little arrows pointing down or to the right on each and every page. Those little arrows are there because apparently, in 2013, we magazine readers require constant help in figuring out where the next page is.

But we do need that help, those arrows, because on every single page we read there is a conscious decision we are required to make. And these down-or-to-the-right choices, completely trivial individually, keep stacking up, page by page, into a huge collective drain on our cognitive resources. We get worse and worse at making these tiny calls until finally we want to play no more.

Ask Kathy Sierra, and she’ll tell you that the clothesline model will make you fat. That’s because the cognitive resources you spend figuring out how a magazine works come out of the same tank as your willpower and self-control:

If our work drains a user’s cognitive resources, what does he lose? What else could he have done with those scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources? Maybe he’s trying to stick with that diet. Or practice guitar. Or play with his kids.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course.

There is simply no downside at all to the traditional arrangement of having a magazine’s pages go left to right, from start to finish, in a completely linear fashion. Except that it isn’t new, and new is always better.

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In the digital magazine business, there is a dichotomy between interactive magazines and mere replica editions. The accepted wisdom is that interactive magazines are superior. That’s because we, as an industry, have conflated interaction with engagement.

As publishers and app makers, we tend to look at interaction metrics and see engagement. A taxing user experience—even something as seemingly benign as clothesline navigation—can reverse that relationship.

Readers happily devouring your content is engagement. Interactivity is often something else. Like readers working on a boring puzzle, one stupid arrow at a time.