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Serving Two Masters: For Publishers, Aesthetics and Functionality Are Difficult to Reconcile

  Khoi Vinh, former design director for and founder of, expounded on the need for magazine apps that offer greater functionality in a…

Khoi Vinh, former design director for and founder of, expounded on the need for magazine apps that offer greater functionality in a recent interview with BetaBeat.  While providing consumers with readable text is undoubtedly an important feature of any published content and certainly the impetus behind Scribd’s latest app, consumers are also interested in an aesthetically gratifying experience.  Khoi , however, remarked that he only uses The New Yorker app because he is a long time subscriber to their print edition, and therefore can access it for free.  While some users may just want mobile access to the articles, most tech savvy consumers are looking for an app experience that offers social, tactile and aesthetic elements.

Tactile Is Trendy

While a product must be utilitarian to an extent in order to catch on, what differentiates Apple from its competitors isn’t its functionality, but rather, its emphasis on the tactile experience.  While creative types universally revere Apple products for their convenience and intuitive interfaces, PCs are ultimately still better for media and gaming.  For most consumers, however, who aren’t using Macs for their design programs, Apple products are appealing because they are trendy.

Put the Fun Back in Functional

Ultimately apps are not about content, they are about entertainment.  Lady Gaga is a millionaire because she’s amusing, savvy with social media, and easy on the eyes, not because she is a virtuoso (though the woman has some serious pipes and can play a mean piano).  While app developers are still working out the kinks and determining what consumers will find appealing, functionality is not the key to a successful app, entertainment is.  Women don’t buy Vogue for the stimulating articles, they buy them for the visually stunning advertisements and the aspiration value that those advertisements provide.  And while every individual could meet their daily nutritional requirements through supplements and meal bars, fine dining doesn’t seem as though it will disappear any time soon.

Buying the Cow

Vinh has a point in stating that people aren’t likely to pay for extras when they can access the same content on the web for free.  For those who are constantly on the go, however, mobile access to a bevy publications is something that they are willing to throw a couple of dollars towards.  Furthermore, publishers can easily lure readers with exclusive content that is only accessible with the app.  While Vinh attributes Netflix’s early success to its emphasis on providing core content as opposed to dazzling bells and whistles, one must remember that Netflix arrived on the scene at a time when its only major competitor was Blockbuster, which offered a scanty selection and minimal convenience.  Netflix is in the business of selling entertainment, so it’s pointless for their business model to incorporate a feature that is already provided by their product.  Magazines, however, are in the business of selling information, and would therefore be wise to add entertainment value to their product in order to increase its appeal.


When asked to comment on when it makes sense to build an app, Vinh posited that “I would build an app that has utility. I would build social features and sharing that really resonate with people and have longer shelf-life than just a month’s worth of content.”  What Vinh fails to underscore, however, is that entertainment has utility in and of itself.  Meanwhile, Vinh is said to be furtively working on an app of his own.  Is he simply taking a cue from the entrepreneurial playbook and trying to deter any potential competitors?

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