Inside Flipboard’s Project to Rethink Its iPad App for the iPhone

12/7/11Follow @wroush

Any iPad owner who uses Flipboard a lot knows the familiar disappointed feeling: You left your iPad at home, you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, and you just want to pull out your iPhone and spend a minute or two browsing the app’s beautiful lineup of stories pulled from your Twitter, Facebook, RSS and feeds. But wait, you can’t—Flipboard doesn’t have an iPhone app.

Or it didn’t until today. At midnight Wednesday the Palo Alto, CA-based startup released the long-awaited iPhone version of its popular news browsing app. It brings users all the same stories that showed up on the iPad version, but the interface has been redesigned from the ground up for the iPhone’s smaller screen. The signature “flip” or page-forward action in the app now works vertically instead of horizontally, for example, to allow easier single-handed operation of the app with a free thumb. The app also includes a few interesting new features, including “Cover Stories” and “Fast Flip,” that are designed to speed users’ journeys to the content that interests them most.

The Cover Stories screen on Flipboard for the iPhone

Flipboard has raised just over $60 million in venture financing on a reported valuation of $200 million, and to justify the high expectations it has set with investors and users, it had to make its first smartphone app truly amazing. Marci McCue, a spokesperson for the company and the wife of co-founder and CEO Mike McCue, told me yesterday that the company’s designers and engineers went back to the drawing board several times before they came up with a way of presenting content that felt right on the iPhone. This Steve Jobs-like perfectionism was the reason for the long delay in delivering the app, which was originally expected by mid-summer.

Making a great iPhone app, in other words, wasn’t just a matter of shrinking down the iPad version of the app. “We went through a lot of interaction design changes,” says McCue. “On the iPad stories flip right to left. How does a story open on the iPhone? How does it flip? Should it flip at all?”

For the most part, the company has come up with elegant solutions to those questions. There are, however, a few first-day hiccups with the app. I had trouble signing in (it worked on the third try), the content for many sections wouldn’t load at all, and I wasn’t able to add new social accounts from the app.

But the problems will likely be short-lived, and are probably due to the huge crush of people downloading the app, signing up for the first time as Flipboard users, and linking the app to their social-media accounts. Flipboard is, in essence, a social magazine that grabs and reassembles the headlines, images, and text for online stories mentioned by your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, 500px, and other services. That involves a lot of behind-the-scenes processing, and the glitches today are probably just a repeat of Flipboard’s July 2010 launch, when virtually everyone with an iPad wanted to add the app simultaneously.

McCue and Flipboard co-founder Evan Doll (who are pictured above) spent about an hour walking me through the new app yesterday at the company’s crowded-to-bursting headquarters (McCue says the company is looking for a larger space, but doesn’t want to leave downtown Palo Alto). The trick with the iPhone app, McCue says, was to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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