At the end of 2009, I travelled through South West China. I approached it in much the same way as when I’d been backpacking in previous years: reading guidebooks, writing out an itinerary, emailing myself lists of places with street addresses. Lonely Planet China is a big brick of a book, but into the rucksack it went.
I was outdated. Everyone else at the hostels in Chengdu, Dali and Kunming had iPhones or netbooks; every evening they’d connect to the WiFi, look at reviews of places in the next town along, post tips on forums, and use the web to book hostel beds for the next few days. They download and print maps at copy shops, translate text via Google, read up on monuments for free and email photos home to anxious parents.
Almost every aspect of travel has been changed by the web, smartphones and apps. The disruption extends to travel editorial too; sites such as TripAdvisor and Wikipedia have an editorial dimension as much as a practical one. One of the things publishers find so difficult to grasp when it comes to digital is that competition doesn’t just come from other edition-based publications. Your competition is anyone who answers the same problem for your potential consumers.
TRVL is a really interesting attempt to deal with the impact of this kind of disruption on travel editorial. From the moment you touch the icon, it takes a very different approach to most magazine apps. Instead of a standard library of issues to browse through, the app begins with a lovely grid of images, each popping slightly as it loads in. They’re not issues of a magazine and there are no coverlines – instead, each image is clearly labelled with the name of a country and a short title. Straight away, there’s a sense of thoughtfulness. The designers have clearly asked themselves: what’s the reason people read travel magazines?
To find somewhere to go. To be inspired by what’s out there.
On TRVL’s main screen, you’re browsing countries, not issues. It’s a really bold decision, and one few print publishers would make, because they typically assume an app should just be a digital version of print with some extra interactivity on a page level.
Next great step in TRVL: there’s virtually no download time involved. Tap on a story, and up it pops in a preview lightbox, so you can quickly scroll through the content. There’s a real consistency to the decision making in the design: just as the home screen encourages you to browse by country, the ability to dive into a story and whip through the pages means whichever country you pick isn’t a big decision. It doesn’t involve a 15 minute download so you’re encouraged to keep on exploring.
A further tap from the lightbox puts the content fullscreen; it’s overwhelmingly driven by photographs, full screen in landscape mode, with short captions tucked underneath. I suspect traditional magazine designers would view TRVL’s pages as too simple, but to me that’s the attraction. The typical devices of interactive magazines – hotspots, 360 product shots, nested, scrolling boxouts – are all very easy to get wrong. They’re deployed in places where they do nothing for the user, where they make the user experience more complex, and where they impart a tremendous fussiness to the whole thing. With so many digital magazines, these devices are deployed to keep designers happy or to satisfy some misguided business objective of having a more ‘interactive’ magazine. If you’re reading travel journalism, you want to be inspired about places, to lose yourself in them, and TRVL’s focus on photography is ideal for that.
There are limitations to TRVL’s approach, though. TRVL doesn’t go in for reviewing specific hotels or restaurants, opting instead to try and give you a ‘flavour’ of a place, but with no great sense of personality or punch to the writing, I mostly find myself skimming the words and focusing on the pictures. As a result, it’s really only useful at the start of planning a trip. You’ll need to go elsewhere to build an itinerary and book places to stop.
There’s no way to favourite countries, and no way to browse by criteria other than place – if you’re looking for short breaks or road trips, there’s no filtering to help – but then these are software features that would be easy to add in subsequent versions.
As a user of TRVL, I love the photos and how easy it is to pick up and flick through places – it’s just like having a big pile of glossy travel magazines by the couch. As someone who helps make digital magazines, I admire its focus and purity, and how much of the magazine format it’s thrown away. I love the way TRVL is pushing at the boundaries of form, and doing it from the point of view of users, rather than designers and print publishers.