Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Sir: A Times subscriber wishes to object in the strongest possible terms

I subscribed to The Times because I get the paper every day anyway and wanted to see what the added online access and Times+ offering would do for me.

And, as the Times is bravely experimenting with paywalls, and I have a paywall around my MMJ project, I wanted to see what could I learn, and to find out what  the user experience was like.

So? Well, here’s the key thing.

These days I do as much work as I can on my iPhone. It seems to me pretty obvious that mobile is the way things are going, partly because it makes working so surreptitious you can do it on a mobile device without others suspecting you’re slaving away when you should be relaxing.

So when I find a site that doesn’t have a mobile phone version, I’m frustrated.

And the Times doesn’t have a mobile phone version. So, despite being a subscriber, I can’t see it on my iPhone. That’s such a major miss that it’s really unforgivable. Other sites I use all the time, such as the Evening Standard, Sky, and the BBC, offer me a mobile-enabled version of their content, yet my paid-for Times does not.

It’s banking on me paying for an iPad version. I might, one day, but for now newspaper iPad apps just look like the last refuge of the dead-tree journalist.

Then there are the simple functionality issues. Times search was always lousy, but that wasn’t a problem when you could search on Google instead. Now that’s not so easy. So it can be impossible to find items you know are there. Recently I needed to research what a Times columnist, Frank Skinner, had been writing about, yet the Times search didn’t seem to recognise Skinner as a contributor to the paper.

I’ve just repeated the exercise, and the first item that comes up for him is dated September 2008:

What I need are his columns, presented with the newest at the top.

If I change the default filter on results from ‘most relevant’ to ‘latest’ I get this: letters mentioning the man:

What about Times+? I get it that creating a rewards-fuelled community around a news title makes sense. 

But the offerings are – with some exceptions – paltry. A free glass of champagne here, priority booking there. What I really want is to be able to read the Sunday Times Culture section on my iPhone,  and then click to buy some of the books I find well-reviewed there at a really competitive price. Which means matching Amazon. But I can’t. I can go to the Times bookshop and get a smidgeon shaved off, but nothing like the discounts on new bestseller hardbacks Amazon offers.

Times+ needs to have offers that place it among the very best, but it doesn't.

An exclusive £28.50 brunch menu at the Royal Albert Hall? Pass. Try to win tickets to see the Steve Miller Band? Umm, nah. 

But it’s not all bad. I can watch the new Oliver Stone movie for free on line, for example. Thing is, I haven’t been tempted by any of the other Times+ offers. Tell a lie, I bought a case of wine. But I could do that without being a subscriber. What about a Twitter-based wine tasting, as Slate hosted a little while ago? 

What about any ideas that exploit the opportunities that the web, mobile, and social media offer old media? [sound of tumbleweed tumbling]

So, I have to say:

Usability: Fail
Functionality: Fail
Community: Doctor, I think I have a pulse, but it's awfully faint.

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