Magazine content is linear, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  • 2 August 2013

Recall that a typical print magazine is made of:

  • A reasonably limited number of stories, each with relatively high production value

  • A reasonably limited number of full-page advertisements, each sold at a relatively high price (in per-reader terms)

In contrast, a popular online media destination is typically made of:

  • A much bigger number of stories, each relatively short and cheap to produce

  • An essentially unlimited number of banner ads, sold through ad networks or real-time bidding, usually pretty cheaply and on a per-impression basis

When magazine publishers make their content into web sites and interactive editions, they often disregard these fundamental differences and make the mistake of adopting web-oriented structures and mechanics that do not work with their content and advertising formats.

Magazine content works best when read in a linear fashion, from start to finish. The strictly linear navigation optimizes both the readers’ experience with the magazine and the commercial interests of the publisher. There are no downsides.

In a normal magazine, readers browse through every page of a magazine, lingering longer on the stories they find interesting. If hierarchical or hypertextual navigation is introduced, the decision to read or skip a story can be made by proxy: based on things like the section, the subject or a headline.

When people judge stories based on navigational proxies, they skip more of them. Given a limited amount of content, they will see fewer stories. Simple as that.

Linear navigation only works with a limited amount of content. On the web, it might not be an option because readers can’t be reasonably subjected to an endless linear stream of low-value content.

For a magazine, however, browsing through all of an issue’s content is exactly what the readers signed up for. Introducing hierarchical/hypertextual structure can seem like the modern thing to do, but it will make everything worse.

When readers skip stories using hypertext navigation:

  • They spend less time with your content
  • They perceive less value in your magazine
  • Your advertisers see fewer results from their campaigns

It’s particularly eye-opening to realize that giving readers tools to efficiently navigate to the exact piece of content they’re most interested in can decrease the value they perceive in the product, simply because they see less of it. We’ve seen this effect both in ad-hoc user feedback as well as in professionally conducted reader research.

This can seem quite elementary at this point but bear with me as I continue to repeat it. Given a limited set of pages, hypertextual navigation is just a more efficient method of skipping them. It does nobody any good.

When transitioning magazines to digital, the temptation to enhance the product with web-like functionality is often overwhelming. But even the most benign-looking addition—like hypertext links on the table of contents pages—can have huge unintended consequences.

Everybody who has ever implemented such additions has done so with the readers’ interest in mind. This is not print, after all, so the limitations of paper should not apply. And yet, with all our internal research, including reader perceptions and quantitative usage metrics, pointing to hypertext doing more harm than good in a magazine context, I’ve been convinced that the format of a print magazine is not simply a reflection of the limitations of paper. Rather it’s simply a format that works.

p.s. Outside of this argument, added complexity is the other fundamental downside of hierarchical and hypertextual navigation. I wrote about that yesterday in Interaction does not equal engagement.