annals of bad design: the digital ‘new yorker’

New Yorker cartoon Frank Cotham "problem"

When our friend Andrea Raisfeld sent us a compelling scan from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece Creation Myth in the May 16th issue of The New Yorker, we went online to find the story and explore its ideas more fully. In the process, the post we intended to write about the creative process turned into a post about bad design.

While trying to use the New Yorker’s digital archive (as print subscribers, we theoretically have access) we inadvertently encountered an avalanche of ill un-considered technology. Our established password didn’t work, even when we reset it; the website didn’t recognize the email address we’ve used for years. Our first three emails to Customer Service went unanswered (There is no phone number for Customer Service on their Contact Us page). Then we began to receive robo-messages repeating the same instructions after each subsequent email asking for help. When we finally created a NEW account on our desktop, it would not work on our iPad.

Finally, we sent a very specific email outlining our experience and wrote HUMAN BEING PLEASE in the subject line. We got another non-sequitur robo-message, repeating previous instructions, this time signed “Shar”.

For ten days running, the digital New Yorker broke the record for website glitches, ineffective instructions, horrific customer service and pure wasted time. Bad design.

Our experience mades us hate a magazine we love. That’s REALLY bad design. But it also made us realize the simple key to good design (of anything): it considers the user.

We wondered how a magazine with such brilliant content could display such astonishing ineptitude in its digital edition; we speculated…

…that their web designers failed to put themselves in the reader’s shoes and test how the site actually worked…

…that perhaps they are trying so hard to protect paid content, they inadvertently created a miserly system…

Our techno-friend Tara Mann said simply: “They want you to read the paper edition.” Maybe so.

For solace, we turned to the trove of apt cartoons at The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank, like this one by the great Leo Cullum:

New Yorker Cartoon Leo Cullum The Problem with Email

Leo Cullum for The New Yorker

As for the clip Andrea Raisfeld sent, it is a quick, thought-provoking bit about how the creative process often works. It also curiously echoes the message of our rant:  “The more successes there are, the more failures there are as well.” In any creative work, you need to hone and hone to edit out the mediocre stuff and the stuff that doesn’t work, and let the best shine through.

Malcolm Gladwell “Creation Myth” for The New Yorker

Thanks Andrea!

Related posts: annals of bad design: stove window
annals of bad design: light in your eyes
japan’s dark spring via the new yorker
if god had a blog (lol)
madan kataria’s laughter yoga: laughing as a practice

11 Responses to annals of bad design: the digital ‘new yorker’

  1. Tamara Redburn 08.23.2011 at 8:12am #

    I agree with the poorly designed digital archive. However, the New Yorker iPad app is brilliant. I’ve shown it to several people, just to show them how enjoyable it makes reading the magazine. In fact, it recreates how I look at the New Yorker, which I’ve subscribed to since the 70’s. It displays how a magazine should work and look and feel electronically. Please check it out!

  2. Sally 08.23.2011 at 11:33am #

    The app may be brilliant IF you can make it work. Trying to get it working properly is where this morass started. I thought it was fixed and just went to use it, motivated by your email. It kept quitting. So I deleted it and went to the App page on iTunes. There are a great deal of really angry, negative comments because of how badly the technology works. My experience still. In my view, that’s bad design; it undermines the really great stuff they do.

    More to come on this in another post….as the saga continues.

  3. Lynette Jensen 08.23.2011 at 4:14pm #

    Form & Function

  4. Jim 08.24.2011 at 8:14am #

    Good luck getting things straight.

    Just a quick comment on the snippet from the magazine you had originally wished to comment on: I think the concept of the hit:miss ratio is a very important one. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron addresses it a couple of times, and even suggests an artist’s prayer for it. Doubtless I’ll misquote, but here goes: “Great Spirit, I’ll take care of the quantity, and you take care of the quality.”

    Thanks for reminding me of this.

  5. Camille Marchetta 08.24.2011 at 12:10pm #

    The digital archive is a disaster and I too have had no success getting anything in response from the magazine but a robo-letter. The iPad app is an improvement. . After a few glitches at the beginning, I have had no problem logging in and downloading the magazine. It’s beautiful to look at and fun to read. But there’s no easy way to get back to the index, which is annoying; and worse, it sometimes just stops working. I’ve had to delete the app and reinstall it several times, losing stored content each time. There was an update a few days ago and I’m hoping that fixed the problem.

  6. Sally 08.24.2011 at 12:12pm #

    I continue to have problems with the iPad app as well. But after all that wasted time, I finally got a number for New Yorker’s new tech support: 1-873-8271. Maybe they can help you, though they can’t seem to help themselves….
    Thanks for your comment.

  7. Kevin Pfeiffer 09.11.2011 at 3:41am #

    Yes, yes, yes. Why does the New Yorker stick with this crappy product (the digital edition)? The answer, of course, is that they are stuck in the “print page” mentality. I like seeing a digital New Yorker page that looks like the print edition as much as the next guy, but then at least fix the most egregious interface problems. Example (so often complained about that it’s in their FAQ):
    Q: Can I turn pages when I am zoomed in?
    A: No. Click on the page to zoom out, then use the arrows to turn the page.

    That sums it up in a nutshell. To turn the page (THE most fundamental reader action) you must first click on the page, wait for the redraw, click on an arrow or press the arrow hey, then click on the page once more and wait for the download and redraw. And someone got paid to design and implement this interface?

  8. Sally 09.11.2011 at 12:23pm #

    Thank you for yet ANOTHER example of the website’s ill-considered design. I have such a long list of examples (like yours), that to include them all would have made for tedious and dispiriting reading. You have summed it up in a nutshell.

  9. Judy Dyer 09.28.2012 at 2:32pm #

    I live in Mexico so having the digital edition is very appealing. But, I had the same problems. I got repetitious robo responses to my frustrated attempts to log in. I spent hours trying to work it out. I finally hired a web expert who had me use Firefox to get access. It worked better than Safari given that now I was able to log in but often I get a fuzzy page or no page at all. Just reading the article on Mitt Romney, it is not readable after the 6th page. …. then it is blank. The company doing the digital edition is in Australia and must have been the lowest bid.
    that phone number for the tech support? it starts with a 212? or an 800?

  10. Clement Kent 02.13.2014 at 9:43pm #

    Just an update – in 2014 the same problems exist. I’ve had digital versions of the New Yorker since the DVD archive came out. Each of them has been extraordinarily poorly designed for on-screen reading. I’m still a print subscriber for just that reason. Perhaps that’s their goal – keeping dead-tree readers. If so, I can only say how stupid. The content of the New Yorker is brilliant – I’d pay just as much to get it electronically as via post – and they’d make more money.

    A particular beef is how the online digital archive is low-res, and works poorly in Firefox. Dumb, dumb, dumber..

  11. Sally 02.14.2014 at 3:33pm #

    Wow, they STILL haven’t got it together after all this time. Disheartening. Thanks for the report.

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