When Marco Arment created Instapaper five years ago, he didn’t just build the first subway-friendly app for catching up on the news, he created a harbinger of what would come of mobile interface design. The straightforward navigation and comfortable use of white space showed up later in other media redesigns, such as Newsweek and The New York Times. But that original penchant for clean looks didn’t prevent Arment from revamping Instapaper with every iOS update.
"[Arment] has a reputation for being an incredibly careful designer, the kind of guy who sweats every pixel," says Andrew McLaughlin, SVP at Betaworks (and CEO of Digg). Betaworks recently gave Digg a much-praised facelift, and bought Instapaper back in April, after Arment infamously emailed the founders ("at 1:37 in the morning") asking to entrust Instapaper in their hands.
Beyond some housecleaning on the backend—switching from PHP to Python, moving from a Texas-based hosting service to Amazon’s, and translations into 13 languages—the task at hand for Betaworks was to preserve Instapaper’s core functionality while designing an interface consistent with the new iOS paradigms.
"The interface was very dated, with heavy gradients and shadows," says Brian Donahue, who built the updated app. He’s alluding, of course, to the new design ideal set by Apple’s flattened iOS 7 and Google’s projected logo revamp. Donahue knocked out all the faux three-dimensionality, making Instapaper feel less like an appendage, and more like something that inherently belongs within the new operating system.
But the main act for the new Instapaper isn’t just crisper lines. Donahue decided to accelerate Arment’s initial goal—a handy way to read news articles on the subway—by building two new layers to organize reads. "Sort" lets users sift through stories by "newest saved," "oldest saved," "longest articles," "shortest articles," "popularity," and "shuffle." "Filter" simply categorizes articles by the length of time they take to complete.
"When I’m taking a subway and I’m two stops away, I’ll sort by length," Donahue tells Co.Design. "That’s a more efficient use of my time instead of looking through all the articles." And as McLaughlin points out, avoiding interface pitfalls like backed up queues (experienced by pained Netflix users) creates a more harmonious experience for readers. With Netflix or email, it’s sort of a drag because the only way to go through is to jam through the order I saved it," he says. "What we’re trying to do is pull out of this sea of things, what you might want to read." It’s one keen way to make Instapaper feel like it’s simply a part of your phone.
Get the new Instapaper app for $3.99, here.