It Just Works: HowStuffWorks on iPad is Better Than the Web

By Steve Smith

The wonderfully quirky information and reference site owend by Discovery Communications has always had a fun approach to content. With short video clips around obscure topics and a relentless supply of quizzes and seemingly random but interesting facts, this is a site that made a business out of human curiosity. The Web site, alas, is a bit of a snooze considering the editorial creativity and style that go into HSW content. It has a predictable look and feel, dictated as much by the need for standard ad blocks as it is by any house style. The new iPad app demonstrates how a content brand can leverage the properties of the app platform to deliver a more compelling image and a more engaging interactive experience than the Web.

The app pretty much re-purposes and reconfigures the Web site content, but it does so in a way that makes the material more fun to interact with and to explore. The home page places tiles of stories with over-sized thumbnails on a graph paper background. In the features page the main content categories are accessible via a ribbon interface made to look like a slide rule. Instructions often appear as pencil scrawl on the graph paper. In short, HSW has taken the blandness of the Web site and turned it into a content theme park that embodies the goofy geek sensibility that really drives the content. Good for them.

But is isn’t just a cool look. The thumbnails are nicely indexed by content type, from video to lists to quizzes so you can drill into the material easily by topic or just by content type. The multimedia is very well served by the platform. The site has produced tens of thousands of articles and thousands of audio and video programs over the years. The app acts as a very attractive front end for accessing all of it. The videos pop up in a large screen. The audio shows can play in background while you peruse the rest of the app. A handy “Now Playing” button at the top of the app lets you access the audio show any time.

The quizzes are especially compelling. On the Web these tests of knowledge both useful and obscure are pretty nondescript multiple choice affairs with text and radio buttons. In the app the quiz fills the screen with a lush themed background image and animated bubble windows. On the Web the experience is much like filling out an information form. In the app, it is a game.

Almost any magazine could learn a lot from HSW’s iPad execution. They have used the lush expansive screen and touch interface to make browsing their content fun. The process of discovery is enjoyable because the app itself seems to be encouraging exploration it at every turn. In each content category simple buttons invite you to drill further down into sub-topics. The app itself shows how effectively a brand can communicates its values and tone through interface, look and feel, and a design that communicate a mood and a sensibility. But magazines already know that. they have been following these principles of information design in print for a century. It is just that the rigors and conventions of the Web seemed to make everyone forget.