Zite: Personalize Your Reading Experience

Zite calls itself a “personalized magazine” and we can safely say that this is true. It is essentially an RSS reader at its core, but the hardware that is the iPad has enabled that type of service to be wrapped up in such an attractive package that Zite is very much like a magazine – incredibly different from any RSS experience you’ve ever had.

It goes without saying that there is an abundance of great content freely available on the Web. The problem is that it can be difficult to organize it and to keep track of it. RSS readers have filled this void for a number of years, but we’re now stepping into a new era of reading content on the Web, and Zite is right in the middle of it.

Design and Interface

Zite is a personalized magazine application, so as you would guess it does have a magazine feel to it. The stories are laid out in a grid format with a headline and the first few sentences of the article, along with an image if one is available.

Upon launching the application you’ll arrive at the Top Stories page which will show you a mashup of various articles from the various sections you’ve set to receive from (more on this later). Along the right-hand side of the Top Stories view is the table of contents. This is a list of the categories that you have said you want to follow.

Tapping on any category will take you to that particular section of your magazine.

Top Stories view

Top Stories

Swiping across the main page will bring you to a second page of Top Stories. This is essentially the same as the main page, but without the section listing on the right-hand side. You can continue swiping to seven different pages of Top Stories.

Each page will display an assortment of each of the sections that you are following. The Sections are always available via the top right-hand corner of the display. Tapping will bring a slide out of the section listing. A Home link is also always available via the top left-hand corner of the display.

In the bottom right-hand corner of the screen you’ll always see a Customize button. This will take you to the area of the application where you will actually create your customized magazine. We’ll talk more about this a bit later.

Tapping on an article will open up that article for you to view. The content of the article is pulled into the application so the Zite style will hold true.

The styles from the website where the content came from will be stripped. This is a great feature and really makes you feel like you are, in fact, reading your own magazine. On the right hand side of each magazine you’ll have some options to interact with the article. This involves further tuning your customization and sharing.

In landscape orientation that section is always displaying, but it will set as a slider that can be minimized and maximized in portrait orientation.

Overall, the interface feels very intuitive to me. Anyone can pick it up and understand how it works. We haven’t discussed this quite yet, but even the customization functionality, which is obviously a pretty important feature of a personalized magazine application, feels effortlessly intuitive and easy to use as well.

Functionality

We can divide the core functions of Zite into a of couple groups. A big part of any content based application is navigating the content. You can have the greatest articles available to you, but if you’re unable to browse through them the whole application falls apart and becomes essentially pointless. As this is a personalized magazine application the other core function of Zite is its ability to be customized. After all, it wouldn’t be very personal if this wasn’t something that was easy to accomplish.

Navigating the Content

Navigation begins at the main Top Stories screen of the Zite application. This is the screen that loads first and is always accessible via a Home link that is ever present in the upper left hand corner of the screen once you’ve left the Top Stories page.

The Top Stories page shows a mix of the categories you have chosen to follow. You’ll see some that are featured that will occupy more screen space and others that are a bit smaller in size. You’ll see the title of the post, where it was originally posted, when it was posted, an image if there is one available and the first few sentences of the article.

Section view in portrait mode with the section list expanded

Section view in portrait mode with the section list expanded

On the Top Stories page you’ll see the sections you currently subscribe to on the right hand side of the screen. This allows you to quickly jump to a particular section if you so chose. The list is scrollable so if you have more sections than are able to be seen on the screen, you simply drag the list to view what is currently hidden.

Article view

Article view

Tapping on an article will open it in a page that appears on top of the of the main article summary pages. It essentially feels like you’ve turned the page in a magazine. The content of the article is stripped and it appears in the Zite application. You’ll see the title and logo of the site where the content was pulled along with a full link at the bottom of the page.

At the top of this view is a function to change the font size and type (serif or sans serif).

A button that will take you to the web page for the article is also at the top of the view. I should mention that there are some articles that won’t open in Zite. You’re automatically taken to the web page. I only found this to be the case with a few sites, however, it was the case with the Economist and the New Yorker.

Article view in portrait mode

Article view in portrait mode

Along the right side of the full article view is the Personalization section. This is where the applications starts to get really interesting. Here you’ll have some options to tune your Zite experience along with options to share the article.

Personalizing Your Magazine

Customizing and personalizing Zite is where this application shines and really separates itself. There a couple of spaces where you’re able to customize the application. We’ll talk about the general customization first and then I’ll take you through the more in-line personalization that I mentioned in the last section as well.

On the Home screen you’ll see a Customize button in the bottom right hand corner of the display. This will take you to an area that will allow you to choose sections you’d like to include in your Zite magazine.

There are a pile of sections already available, but you’re able to create your own as well. You’re able to toggle these on and off as you wish. The magazine will simply refresh with your customizations each time. It is also possible to connect a Google Reader, Delicious, or Twitter account.

I connected with my Google Reader and it works beautifully. You can come back to this and adjust anytime you’d like, making changes is an absolute breeze.

Customizing the sections

Customizing the sections

Now for the cool stuff. After opening an article you’ll find the Personalize section on the right side of the view (minimized in portrait orientation). Here you’ll be able to tell Zite what it should do in the future, by indicating what you like and don’t like about its article selection.

First off you’ll be asked it you liked the article or not. You can then request more from the current source in the future or more about any of the particular subject keywords that were pulled from the article. These all work as toggle buttons and you only need to complete what you want. In fact, you don’t ever need to touch this aspect of the application if you don’t want to, but you’d be missing out on one of its most important features.

Zite will make adjustments to what content it pulls based on your selections. The more you use the application and the more you interact with it the better it becomes for you. It learns from you to deliver better content. It’s a pretty great concept – and from my experience works beautifully.

Personalizing by checking what I liked. More DSLR!

Personalizing by checking what I liked. More DSLR!

Conclusion

There is an abundance of great content available to us on the Web. In fact, there is way more fantastic stuff out there than any one person can possibly get through.

It can be staggering and a bit frustrating to think about how much great information we’re missing out on. Application developers for all platforms are exploring different ways of displaying and curating this content for us and Zite is one such application.

It does some very interesting things in both the style and function. The magazine feel is welcomed and the customization and personalization is just exceptional. I know there will be other players in this sector further exploring the space and I look forward to it, but Zite is one of my favorites right now.

It has become one of my most used iPad applications and essentially completely replaced my Macbook RSS reader as the place where I keep up with all of my favorite websites. Oh, and the price tag of free is pretty easy to swallow as well. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.


Summary

A excellent personalized magazine-style reading experience for your iPad.

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