I always approach analyzing our surveys with some level of trepidation, since there’s nothing like asking tens of thousands of people what they think of your work to trigger latent insecurities. Happily, the results of the TidBITS 2019 Reader Survey proved largely positive and helpful (for a link to the full question set, see “Please Vote in the TidBITS 2019 Reader Survey!,” 16 August 2019). I was sad that this year’s survey attracted only 1094 responses, less than half of the 2267 people who responded to our last survey four years ago (see “TidBITS 2015 Reader Survey Results,” 7 December 2015).
We’re well aware that this sort of survey is far from scientific because respondents were self-selected. However, since 56% of respondents were TidBITS members who provide the bulk of our financial support, I’m happy to take guidance from this subset of our readership. (I may use “TidBITS readers” as a shorthand for “survey respondents” below; I’m aware the two groups aren’t identical, but that’s how we’re going to think about it, regardless. People who vote get more say in the future.)
Our first few questions were designed to learn more about our readership so we could be sure we have the right targets in mind when developing articles. Unsurprisingly, given that we’ve been publishing TidBITS for 29 years and have many loyal readers who have stuck with us for decades, we’re all getting older (and wiser, of course). 90% of respondents are over 50, and since Tonya and I turn 52 shortly, we’re right in that demographic.
Some might say we should be trying to attract younger readers, but from watching our son Tristan and his friends, it seems unlikely that we’d be able to succeed at that. We don’t think the way younger generations do, and they neither consider reading to be a primary way to learn nor have much media brand loyalty. They tend to solve problems as they crop up, watching videos or cherry-picking articles from Google search results, rather than subscribing to a periodical. So be it—TidBITS doesn’t have to live forever, and we’re primarily interested in meeting the needs of the TidBITS members who keep us in business.
I was intrigued to see the results of our question about technical proficiency, which had a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was “I’m a novice or often have trouble using my Apple devices” and 5 was “I solve problems with Apple devices for everyone around me.” Most of you—85%—are above average, with answers of 4 or 5. Only 13% of respondents picked 3 on the scale, and just a few people admitted to being less technical. These results are good, since they tell me that we can continue to assume that TidBITS readers are quite technical when deciding how detailed an article should be.
It’s clear that our most engaged readers, the ones who responded to this survey, see TidBITS as an email newsletter, with 79% saying that it was one of the ways they read our articles. (These numbers total more than 100% because people could read TidBITS in multiple channels.) Only 31% of respondents use our Web site, and after that, the numbers drop off even further, although the fact that 14% see TidBITS in Apple News was heartening. These numbers were virtually unchanged from 2015.
Speaking of our Web site, which we radically redesigned in April 2018, the overall ratings were pretty good, with 72% of respondents rating it as 4 or 5 on a 1–5 scale, where 1 was “Don’t like it” and 5 was “Love it.”
In the freeform responses, the most common adjective that people used to describe it was “easy” followed by “clean” (and yes, I checked to make sure there weren’t negatives in front of those words). Although a few people said they preferred our old site, there were equal numbers of people saying how much they disliked the old site and were happy we redesigned it. Can’t please all of the people all of the time.
I was a little taken aback to see so many comments that essentially said “I never/rarely use it” and even “I didn’t realize you had a Web site.” Although we publish almost everything in email, if you go to our Web site, you can read the comments that often provide additional information and commentary that expands on the article, and we even sometimes post comments on older articles with updates on the product or service discussed.
The site also provides a 29-year archive of past articles, many of which remain useful today. (In response to a comment in TidBITS Talk, for instance, I just posted a link to “Put Save As Back on the File Menu,” 30 November 2015.) To find those, you can use the site’s internal search capabilities, as about 37% of readers do, or follow the lead of another 6% of readers and target a Google search to our site by adding +site:tidbits.com to your search phrase. However, since 53% of people copped to rarely searching for old articles, I can only assume most of you aren’t interested in going back in time. You can also browse through back issues, if you missed one in email.
The design of our email issue was even better received than the Web design, with 82% of people rating it at 4 or 5 on the 1 “Don’t like it” to 5 “Love it” scale.
Many of the free-form comments again came down equally on opposite sides of the same topic, such as “Like the summary up front” and “I don’t think the summary at the top is necessary.” Can’t please all the people… A number of comments strayed into tech support territory, and I hope to collect and address those in a separate article.
Two categories of comment deserve an immediate response, however. First, quite a few people expressed annoyance that the links in the table of contents at the top of each email issue often don’t work. It’s true, but it’s not our fault! Blame Apple and other email developers, because our design has properly formed named anchors. Apple has ignored this problem in iOS for years—I first reported it in “Mail in El Capitan and iOS 9 Ignores Named Anchors” (5 January 2016). Although Apple closed my bug as a duplicate long ago with no commentary, the company did fix the problem in Mail for the Mac at some point. I’ve confirmed that iOS 13 still suffers from the bug, and I’ve reported it again. If you’re using the iOS 13 beta, please pile on and report it with the Feedback Assistant app.
Second, many people also commented on an annoyance with Gmail’s native Web interface. If a message contains more than 102 KB of text, Gmail puts a message at the bottom that says “[Message clipped] View entire message.” Clicking the “View entire message” link works fine, but is a frustrating extra step, since you have to then scroll down to where you left off reading. The problem is that the 102 KB limit includes the necessary HTML markup, and HTML email requires inefficient table-based coding and inline CSS. It’s only loosely related to the amount of readable text in the issue and is difficult to avoid. (Cornell University’s monthly newsletter for alumni and parents regularly exceeds 102 KB with just a few screens of text and graphics.)
Despite these irritations, only 30% of you said that you’d prefer a short, summary-only version of the issue with links to each article on our Web site. Such a version would require a fair amount of development effort and would both complicate our subscription interface and increase our support load. I’ll put it on our development wishlist but can’t promise if or when it will happen.
When it comes to your opinions about what we’re writing, we were pleased to discover that our instincts were largely accurate, with two notable exceptions. Since we allowed everyone to rate each category on a scale from 1 to 5, we calculated weighted averages to compare the categories.
When it came to which products you want to read about, the Mac reigns supreme, as always. Moreover, as anyone would predict, the iPhone and iPad were close behind. The Apple TV garnered much less interest, with the Apple Watch at a similar level. We didn’t expect the AirPods and HomePod to be all that popular, and they weren’t, but they don’t need much coverage.
Interestingly, we asked the same question in 2015, and the Mac dropped 0.06 points, the iPhone rose 0.24, the iPad went up by 0.13, the Apple TV dropped by 0.24, and the Apple Watch rocketed up by 0.49. That makes sense—as iOS devices become ever more flexible and powerful, I can see them becoming more compelling at the slight expense of the Mac. The fourth-generation Apple TV and original Apple Watch shipped in the months before the last survey, and I think it’s fair to say that the Apple TV has not lived up to its promise, whereas the Apple Watch has exceeded its.
To make sense of all the different topics and types of articles we asked you to vote on, I’ve grouped them into four tiers. These are a little arbitrary, but they give us a way to evaluate any given article idea by the tier into which it would fall.
- Tier 1: These six categories were the most popular, with Troubleshooting & Maintenance far and away the winner with a 4.30 weighted average. I was a little distressed that Security & Privacy was second, purely because I wish we didn’t live in a world where it warrants such importance. The third-place ranking of News & Analysis was good, since we feel that we can’t ignore major news items. The final three—Hardware/Accessory Reviews, Mac App Reviews, and Practical How-To—are all utterly worthwhile, and we’ll continue to prioritize them.
- Tier 2: It didn’t surprise us one bit that the first category in this tier, TidBITS Watchlist, ranked so highly. People really like Agen Schmitz’s short descriptions of Mac app updates. The remaining three—Internet Services, iOS App Reviews, and Apple Automation—seemed to fit well as Tier 2 content. They’re appealing but not quite as core to the TidBITS reading experience.
- Tier 3: I’m less sure how to interpret the votes that filled this tier with ExtraBITS, Tech & Politics, Reader Favorite App Surveys, and Opinion. We spend a large amount of time researching and posting ExtraBITS summaries of external articles because it feels like they give TidBITS breadth each week. We may not be able to cover every interesting industry development in depth, but we consider it a service to point you to coverage elsewhere. Perhaps that time would be better spent on short Tier 1 articles. I can see Tech & Politics and Opinion ranking lower because, well, the Internet is way too full of both. We’ll try to restrict ourselves to those that feel the most important. Finally, the low ranking of Reader Favorite App Surveys surprised me. Those articles, where we rank apps in a particular category with crowd-sourced opinions, are quite a lot of work, but we previously thought they were more popular.
- Tier 4: The relatively low ranking of the IT/Enterprise category came as no surprise; most people simply don’t do that kind of work. Nor were we surprised by you being relatively uninterested in articles about Terminal. But the last two? Ouch! Home Automation and Entertainment were by far the lowest-ranked categories. We’ve focused quite a bit of coverage on both due to Apple’s HomeKit platform and forthcoming Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade platforms. Clearly, we’ll have to pull back on such coverage.
Finally, when we asked about doing more of the super-short surveys we’ve put at the end of some articles, the reaction was generally positive, with 66% of people saying that they’d like to see more. As we publish articles, we’ll ponder if a survey makes sense.
When it comes to individual articles, we were pleased to hear that roughly 90% of respondents think that TidBITS articles are “just right” when it comes to length, depth, and technical level. Those who disagreed were split about evenly between the alternatives. At most, we’ll try to make articles a little shorter in the future.
With regard to the featured images we associate with every article, you gave us a resounding “Meh.” On a scale of 1 to 5, 52% ranked those images as a 3, 33% as a 4, and 10% as a 5.
Those who read only the email issue see those images only as small thumbnails to the right of the article title, since they’d take up too much space at full size. For the Web site and the individual articles that TidBITS members get, the images appear at the top of the article as a way of providing an attractive visual element to draw the reader in. They’re a common feature in Web publications and are reputed to be essential for attracting traffic on social media platforms and Apple News.
However, I have to admit that they’re an inordinate amount of work to find or create. So I’m going to try dropping them for a week or two. We’ll see if there is any apparent impact, particularly in Apple News, which really wants images. There may be some compromises that will feed a stock set of images to Apple News without requiring extra effort for every article.
With our infrastructure transition, we moved from a lightweight commenting system that Glenn Fleishman and I designed to an open-source system called Discourse. It was like switching from a canoe to an aircraft carrier in terms of flexibility and capabilities. Overall, I genuinely like Discourse as both a user and an administrator, and it integrates nicely with WordPress to embed comments under articles and simultaneously power the TidBITS Talk discussion forum.
As far as those comments go, 52% of readers at least scan the comments at the bottom of each article, although only about 21% of people read them more regularly or follow the ongoing conversation as it evolves. About 27% never read the comments, which isn’t too surprising given that email subscribers have to click through from the issue to our Web site to see them.
Of the 30% of respondents who said they did comment, nearly all contribute something only a few times per year, with only about 4% writing in more frequently. Such percentages are probably to be expected, but remember that we welcome all constructive input on our articles. Some articles have garnered comment discussions that significantly expand on the topic in useful ways.
At times, we feel as though we’re being left behind by the sexier worlds of podcasting and short-form video. However, when we asked if you’d be likely to subscribe to either an Apple-related podcast or a regular YouTube series, the answers were identical and unequivocal:
- Just under 20% of respondents thought they’d subscribe.
- Just under 40% of respondents were on the fence, which I take to mean they’d try an episode or two but probably wouldn’t end up subscribing.
- Over 40% of respondents were sure they wouldn’t subscribe, due either to information overload or lack of desire for audio or video content.
I’m not going to make any promises either way, but this wasn’t a ringing endorsement from the people we most want to help.
We had five different free-form comment areas in the survey, culminating with the open-ended “Anything else about TidBITS you’d like to comment on, suggest, or otherwise tell us?” Those questions attracted 1375 responses overall, and I’ve collected them into long documents and am reading through them. Many are highly flattering, and I thank you for the kind words—they mean a lot to us. The criticisms were welcome as well, since only by knowing what people don’t like as much can we improve, and I’ll be taking those into account moving forward.
I regret not asking for an email address as one of the questions because quite a few people complained about problems that are easily solved or just made comments to which I’d like to respond. Since I can’t write back to people directly, I’m going to answer those questions and comments in an article. I strongly suspect that if one person is confused about something, others are as well, so my answers might end up helping quite a few people. And hey, more articles are good!
Thanks to all who responded to the survey, and I hope everyone has enjoyed this peek behind the curtains.