Commentary

Almost Mobile: WSJ's iPhone App

"Oh no, you didn't! Oh no, you didn't!" I shout at my iPhone. I am desperately trying to do some quick finger snaps of hip rage. When a 50-year-old, suburban geek tries to act street, apparently it looks to others like a stroke.

"What's wrong? Are you okay?" My daughter and partner freak and come to the chair. I may be losing motor functions, they think. Later, my partner says she feared I might swallow my tongue.

Actually, I was just astonished and a bit pissed that a blazing red Oracle ad in the new Wall Street Journal iPhone app kicked me out of that content experience into the Web browser, which I consider rude enough in iPhone apps. But it also sent me to the Oracle's standard home page -- no mobile version, no landing page that acknowledges I clicked on a mobile ad and used a mobile browser.

Still checking my pulse, my partner scolds, "You're seriously insane. And, you take your iPhone way the heck too seriously. Do your readers know how weird you are?"

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"Well, I keep trying to project it onto you two, but I think they are on to me."

Sorry, but it is disconcerting to have a mobile ad kick you out of an app and then not even satisfy you with a decent landing experience. Mobile advertising has to be more seamless than that. Now, to WSJ's credit, the app rebounds well. Upon restart, it drops you back where you stupidly clicked on an Oracle mobile ad to begin with. But never again. It is too upsetting.

If the ad experience in the WSJ app feels a bit too much like the Web ad experience, it is because the entire app feels like a limitless Web site. I can't decide yet if this is a good or bad thing, but this media brand is extending the concept of the phone as portable PC to remarkable lengths. You can drill into (and add to the 5-button customizable shortcut bar) 16 different content categories, including Barron's content and All Things Digital. WSJ pours everything in here (podcasts, video reviews, WSJ radio programs), although ironically I can't find a simple stock lookup or real-time market chart.

WSJ on the iPhone clearly follows a more-is-more approach that dazzles you at first blush with its breadth, and then makes you wonder, how much of this do I need or want here? I like the idea of having those Mossberg video reviews and radio dailies on my iPhone. I don't know yet how much I will use them, and they can be a bear to drill into. Each of the content topics has a Text, Video and Audio tab, so to get a true view of the freshest content in Markets or Opinion, you have to traverse across all three verticals. I still think we need a better solution than this. Separating content into technological categories by platform seems like an engineer's reflex, not a user's.

WSJ gets halfway to the personalization it needs. As I said, you can edit your own category shortcuts, which is good. Also very strong is the article save and email feature. A Save and Email button sits beneath every piece of content, and the Save bucket is just another content category (with Text, Video and Audio tabs) you can access any time. The design encourages browsing and triaging content. But when you are dealing with a trove of content this deep, more adroit personalization seems in order. Should the mobile user have to paw through favorite categories and then three types of content in each, for that "drive-by" media fix? After three or more years of active mobile Web use, I find myself veering away from the bottomless pits of content and more towards the well-managed shallows. And in this regard, WSJ actually gets halfway there as well. One of the categories is an Editors Picks that applies the brand's own human filter on this mass of content.

I don't know offhand if all of the otherwise subscriber-only WSJ content is made free to iPhone, but I gather some of it is. That alone may be enough of an attraction for some users, but it still begs the question of whether more is more. I don't mean to look a gift Murdoch in the mouth (sorry -- I wrote that before visualizing it). But as smart phones offer us platforms that look and feel more like a PC, we run the risk of designing content as if users are encountering it from a PC. Even as the technological platform evolves into something like a PC, the use cases and contexts do not. The content richness technology allows has to be balanced with forms of personalization that also don't cut us off from discovery. And don't kick us the hell out of a damned application just to show us a frickin' corporate home page! Jeez! I mean, really!

"Ok. You know what, honey. You are going to give me the iPhone now. You're getting worked up, and you don't get to have a stroke in the middle of 'Marley & Me.' C'mon. Give it. Column time is over."

2 comments about "Almost Mobile: WSJ's iPhone App".
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  1. Kevin Planovsky from Vert, April 16, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.

    This is EXACTLY like the iPhone Weather.com App ad for Zyrtec that has been running for the last month or so... DRIVE ME NUTS!

    This is the exact reason why we started Vert Mobile (www.vertmob.com) - to help brands navigate through the mobile space on all levels so that horrendous user experiences like this don't occur...

    Bravo on your article! It is spot on!
    Cheers...

    -Kevin

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 16, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.

    You do know, if you like the WSJ so much you can just buy the paper and have it all right at your fingertips without interuption, all at once that you can read part and parcel on your time.;) Free content just costs so much time and time in money So if you don't have the time, free will cost you so much more.

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