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App users: iPhones are for days, iPads for the nighttime

When the sun goes down, that's when the iPad gets busy for folks with news readers. The iPhone? It's more of a daytime habit. If you're building an app for both devices, heed the lesson.

Zite found that users of its iPhone app spend far more time reading articles during the day than do their iPad owner counterparts.
Screenshot by CNET

When Zite's Mike Klaas examines usage data for his company's news aggregation app, something very interesting pops out: he can pretty much paint a picture of how his users are spending their days.

The upshot? People use Zite on their iPhones pretty much any time they have a few spare minutes during the workday and when they're in bed late at night. But in the evening, they settle in on their iPads for longer, more relaxed stretches of time.

The data are very clear on this, and it's a lesson that other news aggregators with both iPad and iPhone versions are also learning and that anyone working on apps for the two devices would be wise to heed.

In looking deep into usage data showing how and when people use Zite on the two devices, Klaas and his team can tell a lot about users' actions simply from the peaks and valleys in the graphs.

This graph, from Zite, shows when its users pull out the app on the iPhone and iPad. Zite

"I was surprised at how clearly the various phases of the day--morning, lunch time, and supper time--fell out of the day," said Klaas, Zite's director of technology. "It's almost like a story of what a user is doing as they move from one part of their day to another."

Mealtimes definitely seem to be a key indicator of when users' iPhones come out of their pockets. Looking at a graph that compares usage of Zite's iPhone and iPad versions, it's very easy to identify the iPhone bumps at breakfast, lunch, and dinner time. By contrast, while there are similar bumps reflected in the data on iPad usage, they are smaller in the morning and at lunch and much smoother in the evening.

Zite launched its iPad app last spring, and it quickly became a hit. The New York Times, for example, named it one of the best iPad apps of 2011. Then, in December, the company--which was bought by CNN last summer--put out its iPhone version.

The same week that Zite came out for iPhone, Flipboard, already one of the most popular iPad apps of all time, did the same. And now, with two months of data to look at, those companies, and others, are making it clear that when designing an app for both smartphones and tablets, it's crucial to make sure that the different versions accommodate short bursts of usage on iPhone, and more in-depth sessions on iPad.

Starbucks moment
The best way to consider how someone uses Zite, Flipboard, or other similar apps on the iPhone might be to think about when small windows of attention open up during the work day.

Flipboard's Cover Stories feature has been a hit on the company's iPhone app. Screenshot by CNET

According to Flipboard spokesperson Marci McCue, that company's iPhone version is ideally used when, say, someone wants a quick check of what's going on while standing in line for coffee. That's why one of the most popular features on Flipboard's iPhone version is Cover Stories, a set of continuously updated set of articles and photos coming in through Flipboard users' social networks.

"Cover Stories have been an incredibly popular section for the iPhone," McCue said, "because it does have that one-hit notion of, What do I need to check in on right now in like at Starbucks."

Prior to its release of an iPhone version, Flipboard was used to seeing usage peaks in the morning and evening, with big dropoffs during the workday. Since the iPhone version release, one of the most visible impacts has been that "we've seen usage flatten out from the peaks to being more consistent throughout the day," McCue said.

At Zite, the results have been very much the same. Although the iPad is still the dominant device among users of the service, the iPhone is quickly gaining ground--and it is dominating the workday as Zite users with Apple's smart phone find that almost any free time is a good opportunity to load up the app and check in on the latest news.

Once they get home, though, the iPad takes over. "There's a huge surge in the evening, as people relax [with their iPads] on the couch," Klaas said. "For us, that's the busiest time during the whole week...when the evening of the West Coast and the East Coast intersect."

Zite has been able to identify specific usage bumps around mealtimes. Zite

Yet, while Zite learned that its iPhone users like shorter bites of the app than do their iPad counterparts, Klaas said that one surprise to emerge from the data was the gap in session length between the two versions. While he had expected that iPad users would spend far more time with Zite than those on iPhones, it turns out that iPad sessions average just 20 percent longer.

'Personal prime time'
For its part, Flud, another news reader with both iPad and iPhone versions, has also seen what appears to be a daytime/nighttime division between the two devices.

Flud founder Bobby Ghoshal said the number of average articles users read per session dropped since the company's iPhone app came out. But that's a good thing for Flud, said Ghoshal, because it reflects the fact that many iPhone owners are using the app during the day to bookmark articles they want to read later and then returning at night to read them on iPads. And as a result, sessions per user is on the rise, he said.

Ultimately, the dominance of the iPhone during the day makes a lot of sense. After all, the workday is filled with small moments of what Read It Later, a service that helps people identify and save articles to read when it's more convenient, calls "whitespace." It is during these moments between tasks and locations that people reach for their phone," Read It Later wrote in a blog post last month. "These are perfect times to knock an item or two off of your reading list."

This chart showcases iPad usage by Read It Now users in the evening, a period that the company calls 'Personal primetime.' Read It Now

But iPad users clearly want to save their reading for what Read It Later calls "personal prime time," the hours between dinner and bedtime. "Work is done, dinner is resting in your belly, and there is nothing left to do but put your feet up and relax," the blog post continued.

So what does it all mean?

Mobile devices allow us to read what we want when we can. With the iPhone, it's easier than ever to blast through a couple of articles on the bus, or while waiting for coffee. The iPad, on the other hand, offers a compelling experience of sitting back on the couch and catching up. As Read It Later put it, "Readers want to consume content in a comfortable place, on their own time, and mobile devices are making it possible for readers to take control."