Some thoughts on the design of a news app

Recently, some asked about the design of a news app. It got me thinking about how to tackle the problem.

An App for a Gap

Like the majority of the content I consume on my phone, I use it to fill the gaps in the day. Those moments in between: waiting for a train, sitting on the bus, procrastinating while a file downloads. When I read the news in these situations it somehow feels productive, like I’m optimizing an otherwise empty moment.

But these gaps are irregular, they aren’t always easy to plan for and my particular mood at each moment is always different. So how would you design for these pockets of time? Maybe you’d serve up content based on the time it takes to read. Or maybe each article would have would have a 1 minute, 2 minute and 5 minute summary? Or could each article be condensed to a paragraph? So I could easily digest as many articles as I have time for. Maybe the app would ask how long I wanted to read for, then serve up a selection of articles to perfectly fill the gap.

This would have a big impact on journalism itself, it would require writers and editors to be thinking in different versions for each story. Maybe a burden or maybe an opportunity.

Super Productivity

I feel most efficient on my phone when I’m re-routing stuff. Save this for later, forward that email, take a photo of my receipt. My favorite IFTTT recipe copies the link from a tweet to my instapaper account, when I see an interesting article I favourite the tweet for later offline reading. Terribly efficient.

IFTTT receipe

I want the same with my news app, but more refined. I want a button to save for offline reading, add to evernote, save to Dropbox, share with a google group. Not just a retweet button (get with it). In fact, why not just set up an IFTTT channel and let me build my own recipes.

Curated Chaos, Personalised Bubbles

“It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper” –¬†Jerry Seinfeld

Curating the world’s news down to fit a newspaper is one thing, to further reduce to an app is even tougher. While the temptation is to skim off the popular stories from the main paper, does this give a balanced view of the news? Does this selection suit my personal taste? Is popularity the right measure for the judging which story I get served up?

Another approach is personalization. If it is curated to my personal taste (through some complicated learning algorhythm) how do I escape the bubble of my own previous preferences? Will you occasionally surprise me with a story from a section I don’t normally read? Will you preserve the editorial tone amidst the individualization?

Perhaps through the design of the content you can let me be the filter of a large number of stories; like a newspaper, as my eye skims over, it’ll catch on the headline that suits my mood.

Money Making

Newspapers are yet to crack the business model for news apps. Buying each article seems punitive, and paying for a days content at a time leaves me with the opposite feeling of buying a news paper (once I buy the paper, I can read the articles when I like).

Another direction is the spotify/netflix subscription model Рcomplete access for a monthly fee. But this too seems wrong, perhaps because the price point for these services is close the unit price of the old media (a CD or DVD). Instinctively £10 a month for millions of CDs is a no brainer. But then these services are selling the same thing over and over again, newspapers need to generate a new collection of articles everyday.

The paywall model makes money, but it doesn’t suit the irregular reader. At least with a newspaper I buy it when I need it.

So how do you make money from a news app? Maybe you sell functionality: offline reading, summary mode, ad blocking. But this needs to be packaged in a way that feels like I’m unlocking extras, rather than paying to release arbitrary restrictions.

In App functional upgrade
The app ‘Paper’ allows users to upgrade the functionality with in app purchases. It feels less punitive.

Or maybe you make the price of content so low that people won’t even think twice about buying it. 1p per article. Unarguably good value, so low that people won’t think twice about reading a second, third, fourth article. Just one more article. Oh, go on then.

Back to productivity. I feel most efficient on my phone when I’m re-routing stuff. Save this for later, forward that email, take a photo of my receipt. My favorite IFTTT recipe copies the link from a tweet to my instapaper account, when I see an interesting article I favourite the tweet for later offline reading. Terribly efficient. I want the same with my news app, but more refined: save for offline reading, add to evernote, save to Dropbox, share with a google group. Not just a retweet button, that’s so 2012.

So Much Data, So Little Time

Is there a more frustrating feeling than watching more data flow past you than you can process? Seeing your inbox fill up, trying to get it back to zero. More tweets in an hour than a person could process in a year. A symptom of the mass media age. etc.

I’d hate my news app to give me that feeling. I feel really guilty throwing away a newspaper that i haven’t read every single part of. Another app on my home screen with waiting notifications, no thanks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 23.17.27

Can you imagine a newspaper that fills up with new stories quicker than you can read them? At least with the newspaper i have the clear feeling of having ‘finished’ it. Is there a way that my app can convey this feeling? Is there a daily edition, or does this run at odds with the very nature of a live streaming device.

Ultimately I don’t want to be playing inbox zero with another app.

In Conclusion

These are just a few thoughts swimming around in my head, what do you think? Agree, Disagree?