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Cross-device Portability Demands, Part I

Posted on Monday, February 29, 2016 at 12:06 PM

The challenges of publication design on diverse devices and screen sizes.

By William Dunkerley

Put yourself into this picture: You publish a print magazine. Your readers have very specific demands regarding how they wish to read your content. Some are happy with the traditional magazine format, i.e., portrait orientation, usually 8 3/8" x 10 7/8", more or less.

Other readers, however, insist on reading magazines that have a landscape orientation. Sounds strange, but it's true in this hypothetical example. Yet other readers find standard magazine size inconvenient and want to read your magazine in digest size. And still others want different alternate sizes.

Obviously there's no practical way to meet the demands of all these readers when publishing in print. Thankfully, in the real world publishers have never been confronted with such outlandish demands.

And Now?

Now alter the picture, and suddenly you're publishing a digital magazine. In this realm those outlandish-sounding demands for a variety of sizes and formats are not hypothetical; they're real.

Some readers may access your magazine on a desktop or laptop. Others may use a tablet or smartphone. Even more problematic is that there is limited standardization in screen size from one device to another.

And on top of all that, many readers want to be able to read your magazine on different devices at different times depending upon where they are when they are reading.

There's both good news and bad news about this scenario. The good news is that for quite some time the technology for dynamically adjusting your size and format has been readily available. The bad news is that quite a few publishers are not employing it.

Many online publications are designed for viewing on a desktop or laptop or on a large-screen tablet. Pity the poor reader who tries to read such a magazine on a smartphone. The problem is that it doesn't fit.

When desktops were the mainstay for accessing Web magazines, this was not a serious issue. But every publisher must now recognize that things have changed. The old desktop design paradigm is for many readers now quite obsolete.

A 2015 Pew Research study found that 66 percent of Americans already owned at least two digital devices (smartphone, desktop or laptop, tablet) -- and that 36 percent owned all three. It is commonly acknowledged in the Internet business that well over half of all Web traffic now comes from mobile devices.

Unsolved Problems

While the technology exists for serving your content on the fly to whatever screen size a reader might be using, there is a host of problems left for publishers to solve.

Take layout, for instance. Designs for print and old-style online formats were fixed by a publication designer. But that's a concept that is out the window when it comes to content that is dynamically adjusted for the reader's screen characteristics. Just think about the chore of having a design that one minute is being presented in a landscape format on a desktop and the next is being served to a smartphone using a portrait orientation. This means it's necessary for magazine designers to think up entirely new approaches to making words and visuals work together.

And then there are the advertisers. If you have editorial content that is being automatically shifted around according to the reader's screen characteristics, what will happen to the ads? Will traditional ad formats be compatible? Or will ads have to be reengineered for the new flexible design concept? And if ad sizes are being shifted on the fly, how do you price the ads? Is the tradition of pricing ads based on space and position out the window too? These are weighty issues.

In future issues we'll explore the related challenges and present solutions for the problems that arise. Stay tuned.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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