A New Kind of iPad App: 'Popular Mechanics' Goes Simple


You might expect an iPad app that's already being hailed as the best of its kind, weeks or months before it's available to consumers, to really wow you. But the app that Popular Mechanics will submit to Apple for approval later this month won't make your eyes bug out of your head. If it did, it would be a failure in the eyes of the people who created it.

The idea in developing the app -- which was largely done in-house rather than farmed out to programmers and designers -- was not to produce something that readers would be impressed by, but to produce something that would replicate everything that's good about the magazine format while making judicious use of the iPad's capabilities.

"No matter how excited you get about interactive design, you can't lose sight of one basic thing, which is nobody needs to learn to use a magazine," says Glenn Derene, Popular Mechanics' senior technology editor. "We pulled ourselves back from doing a lot of things because of that."

It would be easy to assume that fans of a magazine about the latest advances in science and technology would demand the utmost in novelty from a new digital product, but, in fact, usability tests the magazine conducted indicated just the opposite. "We got a lot of comments from readers who said 'Don't distract me unnecessarily from what I came here to do,'" says Derene.

"They weren't looking for gaming levels of interactivity," adds deputy editor Jerry Beilinson. "It was very Apple-y, actually. They wanted to be able to use it -- they didn't want to have to figure out how to use it."

Simplifying the Experience

To satisfy that desire for simplicity and intuitive functionality, the app's designers discarded many of the options available to them, including the pinch-to-zoom navigation so familiar to users of the iPhone. After all, you don't zoom in on a printed page -- you just move it closer to your face, as you can certainly do with an iPad. (To give an iPad-edition page the same feel as a somewhat larger printed page, the designers had to create a new font and settle for somewhat less text per page.)

The same ethos carries over to the advertising. While ads contain embedded video and live links, those links go not to the Web but to a mini-browser embedded within the app, making it easy to return to the article. "Our argument has been that people become click-averse -- they don't want to touch anything in the ad if they think it's going to take them out of the magazine," says Derene. "Magazines don't do that to you."

Increasing Functionality

That's not to say there are no bells and whistles. There are. The first edition of the Pop Mech iPad app features an interactive earthquake-tracking map that's continuously updated with fresh seismic data. There's also an animated, interactive demonstration that goes along with a how-to article on building a tool-charging station. "We wanted to put our muscle into things that would really increase the functionality," says Derene. "Basically, we were experimenting with, what kinds of things would you want to keep?" What might be a sidebar or charticle in print becomes, on the iPad, a widget that you can bookmark and return to over and over.

Will the restrained approach of Popular Mechanics endear readers to its iPad app? Or will it cause them to ignore it in favor of flashier, gimmick-filled alternatives? Its creators don't know, and they don't expect to for a while. "The first good multi-touch tablet that has gained any traction is only two months old," says Beilinson. "We're in an experimental phase, and we're comfortable learning from the feedback we get."

Originally published