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

12/7/11Follow @wroush

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preserve all the elements that make using Flipboard feel like an efficient, streamlined news browsing experience, while still finding a place for key social elements, such as the icons showing which of your friends originally shared the story.

“Ultimately, it’s about having this immersive imagery, style, and typography that gives you a sense of a real reading experience, plus the social content piece so that you know where it’s coming from and why it’s there,” McCue says. “People make decisions about what to read based on who is sharing it. If your mom sends you and article on eating well, you’re more likely to read it versus just seeing it on the Web. That is what makes Flipboard a personal magazine. It’s very different from the news aggregators out there. We’re about giving you what your friends care about, and what the people you follow are recommending.”

Doll, who leads Flipboard’s iOS engineering team, says the project to transform Flipboard into something that works on the iPhone started from the observation that “the uses cases are entirely different. You use the iPhone standing in line at the coffee shop.” And you’re probably holding it in one hand—which means a vertical swipe with your thumb is a much more natural gesture for advancing through stories than a left-to-right swipe with your index finger, as on the iPad.

The next difference: “On the iPhone we try to highlight one story per page,” in contrast to the three or more stories per page on the iPad, where there’s obviously a lot more display real estate to fill up. “You might initially think that is too low, but you can flip really quickly through a huge amount of content. We are not holding you back—we try to combine pagination with really insane speed, by doing a lot of caching on the server side and predictively loading the next couple of items so that it’s all ready to go. We call that Fast Flip.”

The highlight page for each story on Flipboard shows a full-screen image (if the story has one), a headline, and sometimes the first line or so of body text. There’s also an attribution line showing which publication the story came from, what date it was published, and how many times it’s been retweeted or otherwise shared.

But the centerpiece of the iPhone app is the new Cover Stories feature, which is analogous to the main feature in a real magazine. “It’s a digest of the most interesting things across all your feeds,” Doll explains. “We try to find the highlights, the gems, and let you browse them in one place. This is the feed you browse when you’re standing in line and you just have a couple of minutes to spare. It brings some clarity to this huge amount of content, especially when you have limited time and attention.”

Doll says it was clear almost from the beginning of the iPhone app development process that iPhone users want to get to information faster, and have less time to explore multiple categories of content. “We needed to do something better than give you the same old sections and make you jump between a bunch of different feeds,” he says. “You can still do that if you want, but Cover Stories is pretty essential on a device like this.”

How does the app decide which stories to promote to the Cover Stories section? Doll says Flipboard uses an “intentionally vague” set of algorithms and heuristics—which I took to mean that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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