What's more productive? A stream or a page? A debate

@Scobleizer My point is that I think Flipboard is a nice imitation of a print magazine. But isn’t that a step backwards?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Nova Spivak has been debating with me tonight about how much more efficient he feels news readers are if they stream items down like you’ll see on Twitter.com, or in social media clients like Seesmic or Tweetdeck bring.

I used to agree with him. It was hard to get me away from Seesmic or Tweetie.

But now? I’m a changed man.

Keep in mind that I read about 19,000 inbound on Twitter alone. On Facebook I have 1,800 friends and on Google Buzz I’m following more than 1,000.

I read a LOT of social media. Heck, in the past year alone I’ve FAVORITED 20,000 tweets! (Not counting the ones I’ve retweeted).

So, I’m always looking to be more productive. Yes, I’ve tried Pulse and I’ve tried lots of other readers (I was one of the first to use NewsGator and Google Reader). But nothing is as productive — for me — as Flipboard is.

I actually measured this. I got about 30% more favorites done in a day using Flipboard than I got done in the same amount of time with a streaming reader. And using Flipboard is 10x more fun!

Why is this?

For that I have to go back to my newspaper design class. I remember that early eye tracking research showed that pages that had a single headline that was twice as big as any other headline were more likely to be read. Same for pages with photos. If you put two photos of equal size on the page, it would be looked at less often, or less completely, than a page that had a photo that was at least twice as big as any other.

I won a newspaper design contest in college because of this — my designs made sure that they included headlines that were twice as big as any other and photos that were twice as big as any other.

This might not seem intuitive, but it is how our brains work and eye track research has proven that over and over again. Some of my favorite reading studies were done by the Poynter institute, here’s one such study.

Notice that having large headlines and photos gives eyes an entry point onto the page.

Now, what’s missing in, say, Seesmic or Tweetdeck? That’s right. Any kind of editorial weighting to the headlines and photos are totally missing. Entry points are gone.

Not all tweets are the same. One about Apple’s financial results SHOULD be bigger and more important than one about what I had for lunch today. In Flipboard, which isn’t always perfect because it’s done by algorithms, there is weight and photos and an attractive design.

I’ve come to realize that we’ve actually gone backward in our news media design in the past few years as we’ve gone away from newspaper and magazine-style layouts and toward streams.

One other thing I’ve noticed: my eyes get less strained after using Flipboard for four straight hours when compared to using Twitter’s iPhone or Android apps, or Seesmic or Tweetdeck style apps. In looking why, it gets back to this weighting. Our brains are awesome pattern recognizers and our brains like it when there’s a clear pattern of “look here first, look here second, look here third.” In streams that pattern is gone completely, other than “look at the newest thing first, then this second newest thing, then this third.” That might seem to be more efficient, but it really is not.

Not to mention that a LOT of what value we get out of the world is photographic or videographic.

On tweets you just get a bit.ly link on most readers. Not in Flipboard. That makes it MUCH more productive.

How about for you? Which do you prefer? Streaming like Seesmic or Tweetdeck? Or paginated like Flipboard?


  1. In the early days of feedly, a lot of users would be wowed by the fancy magazine-like interface and then go back to Google Reader which offered a simpler, more linear, predictable model. It is a complex issue which depends on the user, the mode they are in, how often and for how long they read, from which devices they use. Expecting that because it works on paper it is going to work on a social stream is an over simplification. But flipboard is more than just a layout engine: great team, ipad momentum, very smart use of twitter list as a curation engine. It will be interesting to see how their product evolves as they learn more about their user/usage.

  2. well..at least until the next super sexy exclusive to-be-promoted stream based app arrives. Then u can change ur mind again and spam everyone all over again :-)

  3. One shall consider whether it comes down to casual consumption of content or productivity. pagination and the magazine like views are for casual usage. The stream flow provides a way to percolate much faster a chunk of information. But then, probably the solution is somewhere in-between – a good balance between stream for preview and a pagination for actual consumption.

  4. I like to skim through streams, but i also like to have the ability to flip through them if i want to. There is something very rewarding about a slideshow or the way Flipboard presents information. I guess i have to use it over a longer period to see if i can be more productive with a paginated service.

  5. Probably, this is your initial impression. Maybe if you wanna wait for a few days more and see Flipboard really does the trick for you. :)

    Lets revisit this after, say 7 days!

  6. Our experimental setup called Project Emporia used to have a streaming setup. From our study on 100's of people we also concluded that the streaming setup is too much of an information overload. We're now redesigning Project Emporia to have a newspaper-like look; this prototype should launch at the end of August. It's cool to see that Flipboard has a similar setup; they've definitely taken the lead in this area …

  7. Robert, the coin has two sides. JJYossarian is right, it all depends from the purpose and the answer will be found in between the balance of having the ability to track and monitor in real-time what is happening, being able to apply some action quickly and spread it through your network on the one hand and the ability to relax and enjoy some magazine style content on the other.

  8. If imitating a magazine is such a step backwards, then why are more and more e-books being sold everyday? Wouldn't e-books, iBook, and Kindle also be considered a step backwards too?

  9. I find myself using social media in two modes: one where I scan through feeds, and mark items of interest to read later – both twitter and RSS in Google Reader. I then use pipes to group all these items (starred or favourited) into a single RSS feed that I can read in more detail when I have time.
    It would be great to see Flipboard able to support these types of interaction, or at least to be able to curate all the information I've marked as interesting throughout the day into a single magazine.

  10. From what I've seen of it, I think it's wrong to say that Flipbook imitates a magazine. As you point out, what I think it does very well is learn the salient lessons of page design that magazines exemplify: multiple points of entry, clear hierarchy, use of images to make the page easier to read and more interesting.

    I'm going to be deliberately provocative here, and say that a stream – and what we're talking about here is something akin Dave Winer's “River of News” model – just isn't designed for human beings. So yes, I'm very pleased that people are finally waking up to design :)

  11. Flipboard is pretty, but it's really just a layout. It's useful to see articles in magazine or newspaper layouts when you want to browse, but if you want to quickly skim tons of news and decide what to read, it is not an optimal layout. For that a traditional 3-paned browser layout (like Outlook or a newsreader) is probably better, or at least a multi-column layout like Tweetdeck for example. The reason is that 3-pane and multi-column layouts provide the reader with a summary of more articles at once, enabling better “random access” reading. This supports skimming and gives readers more choice. In the Flipboard layout, the reader is forced to page through the content serially and really has no way to skim quickly wihtout going through every page. Furthermore the layouts of the pages are noisy — there is too much content. It's much easier to skim headlines without excerpts. In addition, in Flipboard the layouts change as you page through them. While the variety is refreshing it causes cognitive load — your brain has to parse each new layout and make sense of it. This makes skimming more difficult as well. In summary, i think that Flipboard is a great way to discover content in a “browsing” mode, but it's not optimal for keeping up with large amounts of breaking news, or rapidly changing content. For that a more “random access” mode is much more efficient. I don't think Flipboard will replace my newsreader or Twitter client anytime soon. Unfortunately.

  12. Truth. Been watching this Flipboard thing and I don't want to 'page through' stuff. That's not how humans read on screen. Magazines are dead. Plant a daisy and lets move on.

  13. A stream should still be used to gather your favourite web feeds. Then by quickly editing and filtering your noise, you could display your relevant feeds within a magazine page format.

  14. Hi Robert – thanks for pointing out some simple, yet deep, reminders of why print evolved the way that it did. I've often felt that the print magazine experience hasn't translated well to online (for example I find travel magazines much more consumable than their online analogs – minus the lack of searchability). Can it be as simple as asymmetry of typography and photograph layout? Maybe it is…..we've tried to capture that on some of our Goby pages but your pointer to the underlying principle is very helpful. Streams are just that, streams…you can step into them any time but without guides for where to tap it, you have a firehose instead of something useful. Now, if an algorithm can replicate what a good print page layout designer + editor + typographer does, then that will be something!

  15. You should also look into comparing this to how retail works. the goal of retail is to emphasise certain products and to guide users through a variety of different steps. Compare a stream approach to something like a large discount warehouse very very little is differentiated to the magazine view that is similar to much fast fashion retail like Uniqlo or H&M. Discount warehouses do it that way because they can put more information (products) in and it costs them less (yes, I know they also do stream data users through certain streams). Personally I would much prefer a store that guides me thru in a way that is determined by what I have read before and what my friends are reading and then emphasises products that it has determined i would be interested in. And with pretty music playing the background and lots of pictures of hot models in the background.

    Then again I gave up on google reader years ago for just the reason that it didn;t differentiate the relative importance of posts and I had to skim tons of posts before I got to the ones that were interesting.

  16. I really love FlipBoard…

    But i want to see more than 8-hours….!

    In addition it seems to filter many tweets out and isn't fully real-time (e.g. will i see the latest tweets).

  17. Another reason I need to pick up an iPad, I couldn't convince myself just for reading, but I take in more and more media and need to interact with it helping online entrepreneurs

    Streams seam to lose productivity value…i flip down things…and in a few minutes it blends together and can't keep focus, I go back to the top, Newspaper style, page to page i can absorb for much longer. I vote flip board.

  18. How you read on an iPad screen is not the same as how you read on a screen that's vertically-placed in front of you. “How you read” depends on positioning as much as pixels, distance, attitude, and – importantly – what you're attempting to achieve by reading.

  19. If someone here likes a streamline alternative you should try TimelineReader, available at the AppStore since yesterday. As we promote it, TimelineReader is an iPad app that “finds and filters linked-to information in your timeline, and displays it in an easy, user-friendly way. View linked-to webpages, videos, pictures, and PDFs without ever leaving the app.” It's still in an very early stage of development and do not intent to be a TweetDeck or Flipboard replacement, but to focus in the ability to browse and apply filters to your timeline in realtime.

  20. Myopic Bay-Area Mass-Info-Headline-Reading clinically-ADD techie-newsgeek use of, nothing more, and quite a bit less. Only in the Sandpit Hill Road and nearby clusters, does a betaish-sharewareish-app become a “killer-app”, with buzz and pretty gee-whiz as the only fuel.