Scientific American Enters the iPad Era

By Steve Smith

In print since 1845, Scientific American is the longest-lived continuously published magazine title in the U.S. But the granddaddy of American magazines is but a pup on the iPad, where monthly digital issues finally arrived this week.

The inaugural issue doesn’t offer a flashy animated cover, but it does leverage the platform to offer a slide show of four variant covers. The magazine uses the Adobe publishing platform, and so it obeys its familiar navigation and indexing conventions. Following a recent trend in tablet magazine publishing, the TOC is a long scrolling wall of tiles and short descriptors that hot link to the stories. We especially like the featured online material that comes right after the TOC, including a feed of the latest site headlines, the recent run of great “60-Second” SciAm audio. The top and most recent content is viewable within the app itself with links to full listing on the site itself. We like this approach because it introduces a dynamic element into the monthly magazine app. It also doesn’t just link to the Web but actually pulls the content into the app experience.

SciAm tries to make decent use of multimedia assets to do what the brand does best, make science engaging. Some features have slide shows. Small bits of animation are used here and there to illustrate concepts such as an unusual response to HIV virus by a select few people. A 3D model of the Mars Rover does not fare so well, however. We found the model frustrating and unresponsive. And there is altogether too much reorientation of the display to accommodate some of the tablet-enhanced features. But generally the use of interactive effects is kept modest and leveraged when it is genuinely helpful. The overall user experience is still a bit rough around the edges, however.
The sections of the magazine are nicely divided by red full page nav pages. These pages work nicely in the drop down TOC to orient the reader within the long scroll of stories so they can make their way back to section marketers. There is the standard Favorites tagging. And like too many magazines there is not smart use of in-app content sharing.

One of our favorite uses of tablet enhancement comes in a retrospective feature that highlights great articles that past Nobel Prize winners have published in Scientific American. The review lets the user download full version PDFs of the many pieces going back decades. We also love the back of book look back at the magazine that pops up full screen versions of classic covers. For real brand loyalists, probably the sort who would be reading the magazine on their tablets, this is precisely the kind of enhanced experience they will like.

There are problems here. At time the touch opportunities feel gratuitous. Pop-up captions on many images really just fill space that otherwise is left blank anyway, so it isn’t clear what purpose is served by having us tap to see them. The commenting function is either broken on poorly executed. We can’t tell. Tap the hex icon that lets you comment on articles and you are dumped into the same SciAm Web home page. Huh? A comment function should be built into an app, and any links to the site show land on a specific relevant page.

We look forward to further refinements of the Scientific American tablet edition. This is a good if uneven start for a title that should have a lot to offer device users. The brand gets points for facing the big question of embedding dynamic content from the Web in a magazine edition. And the tablet enhancements are measured and purposeful more often than not.