Dear literary magazines,
I’m writing you this letter to beseech you not to use Issuu and to explain why I feel so strongly about it. I will be as concise as I can, but the platform has many problems.
Let’s start with the most obvious: Nobody visiting your website on an iPhone or iPad will be able to read the work you care so much about. Issuu uses Flash, and there is no Flash on those devices. (In fact, Adobe has stopped developing mobile Flash plugins for any phone.)
It’s true that Issuu has a reader app for iOS, but that doesn’t help you when somebody clicks a link to your website from their chosen iPhone Twitter app, for example. It only helps if you put your entire publication out via the Issuu iOS Reader (which you probably don’t) and a user of the app decides to subscribe. I’d stake my reputation on that fact that most of your readers do not subscribe to any version of your content—print or, for example, RSS—and won’t likely become subscribers just to see your content in the Issuu reader.
A second, related problem is that Flash is clunky in the Mac OS. It crashes often and is notoriously slow and insecure. Personally, I have had enough seemingly Flash-based problems with Issuu that unless I have a really good reason to want to read some piece of writing presented to me in Issuu—like, maybe my wife wrote it—I usually don’t.
A third technological problem with Issuu is that web searches for content you present in Issuu don’t ever lead searchers to your site. By Issuu’s own admission, because they always host the actual content and serve it to your visitors via your embed code, searches that turn up your content will point to issuu.com instead of awesomelitmag.com.
Maybe someday Issuu will abandon Flash (which it seems like they will have to) and come up with some unique way of delivering to you the search-engine traffic that should be yours (a task in which I’m sure they have no interest). Even then, there would be reasons to avoid them. These are mostly usability concerns, the kinds of things that ultimately cost you readers.
The usability issues that seem to matter most all stem from the fact that reading Issuu content requires switching to a full-screen interface. This makes for a worse user experience (UX) in several ways.
First, it’s a long-held tenet of web usability that the interface must prioritize “user control and freedom,” in the words of Jakob Nielsen, the godfather of the field. (Nielsen’s time-tested software interface design principles have been usefully adapted for the web by Keith Instone and Jess McMullin and Grant Skinner, among others) When a website forces users into a full-screen interface in order to read its core content, it violates this critical principle.
Second, Issuu’s particular implementation of full-screen reading also requires users to learn a new interface. The power of the web lies in its consistency across sites: I click a link; I’m on a page; I’m looking at the content I wanted to see. The browser, in other words, is the interface we have all already learned, and the one that websites should take as much advantage of as possible. (“Follow platform conventions,” writes Nielsen; Issuu doesn’t even use a standard Print icon.)
Issuu’s interface includes not only the many little icons and buttons shown at right, but also a set of controls tied to things like your arrow keys and scroll wheel. All of this must be learned by new users, and re-learned again and again by occasional users. In its failure to provide any readily available documentation (like tips appearing, after delay, on rollover; or a single, unobtrusive “Help” link), Issuu also violates Nielsen’s final usability guideline.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to create a new interface and force users to learn it. Or really, there is one: because you are providing a new function—and there are plenty of new functions you can provide. Tweeting, for example, or playing and pausing a video. Reading is not a new function. Reading is the foundational function of the Internet. It’s the only thing—literally the only thing—that every single browser can handle, right down to text browsers and screen-readers for the visually impaired.
Speaking of the visually impaired, they can’t use Issuu—not if they’re using the specialized browsers developed for them. So if you don’t want to lose them as readers, you’d better be sure Issuu provides their browsers with an alternative form of the content. (I don’t believe it does.) Failing to do that is the smaller-scale moral equivalent of not having a wheelchair-accessible entrance to your building. In a way, it’s worse (depending on what’s in the building), because while it costs a lot of money to pour a concrete ramp, not using Issuu is absolutely free.
Finally, although again it is a fact of the Internet that I will have to click several times to accomplish my browsing goals in any given scenario, it is never a good idea to add extraneous clicks. Forcing users who have just clicked a link (from Twitter, say, or from your home page) expecting to read a piece of writing to click again before they can do so is bad form and likely to cost you readers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t close by offering you a pair of possible alternatives. The first and most obvious is to use whatever web publishing platform you have in place to publish your magazine’s content—not just your blog and your “About” page.
The second is just to link to a PDF or, better, a series of PDFs, one for each piece in your magazine. This latter solution will get you out of some—not necessarily all—of the usability hurdles, and will be far better for both search-engine optimization and compatibility with technology used by the visually impaired (so long as the PDFs are well-formed). I would encourage you only to go this route if you have some very compelling reason to do so, and I can’t think of one.
As I mention it, I honestly don’t know what drove some of you to Issuu in the first place. If you felt like letting me know, I would be more than happy to help you think through (and possibly implement) other alternatives that more specifically address your needs.
P.S.: May I call you “lit mags” in any future correspondence?