Three companies answer 6 key questions about their iPad app development

It’s been just over a year since the launch of the iPad, and organizations that took a “wait and see” approach to developing apps are starting to jump in. If you’re at one of those places, there are a number of questions to address before you get started. While no solution will fit all situations, the questions are the same.

Here’s how three very different organizations — CNN, the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and Better Homes and Gardens — answered six key questions as they developed their first apps for the iPad.

CNN has had mobile products of one kind or another since 1999; dozens of people now contribute to their mobile content and products. They were in the middle of several other projects when the iPad was released, so they decided to finish them and give themselves time to understand how it would be different from other platforms. CNN launched its iPad app just before Christmas. I spoke with Louis Gump, vice president of mobile.

The News & Record first built a simple iPhone app in-house over a year ago, and last April they launched an e-edition of the paper (a downloadable PDF version that can be viewed on a computer). That got them thinking about what they could do with the iPad. Their iPad app came out in March. I spoke with Chris Brewer, the classified manager and digital media director there.

Better Homes and Gardens finished a redesign of the magazine six months ago, and its staff used that as a chance to look at all their products. They developed the “Celebrate” stand-alone iPad app, redesigned the website (which launched in May) and created a general iPad app for the magazine starting with the April issue. I spoke with Michael Belknap, creative director for the Better Homes and Gardens brand.

The first question when considering an iPad app is obvious, but not necessarily simple to answer:

What are you trying to achieve?

For the News & Record, the goal was simple: to get into the space, figure out how the tablet experience works, and start to develop ways to move its audience toward its e-edition, which the paper will charge for at some point.

Rather than design an app that tried to do everything, CNN decided to focus on still and video images, which the iPad’s screen features well.

At CNN, Gump said, an initial discussion centered on whether to try to deliver “the kitchen sink or focus on a few things.” The team decided to capitalize on the immersive nature of the iPad with an app that delivered still images and video well. One assumption they made is that tablet owner would use the app while watching TV.

At Better Homes and Gardens, it was important to retain the feel of the brand. They wanted the app to feel more like the magazine than a completely new experience. “Once you make that decision, it sets the tone,” Belknap said. “We didn’t want it to be alien to our readers or difficult to navigate.” For that reason, they chose a horizontal format for the app, which better fits how the magazine uses photos.

What resources are available?

The News & Record built its app on a very tight budget. A local developer built it, and an in-house designer came up with the look and programmed the style sheets.

Better Homes and Gardens decided to work with Wonderfactory, an outside developer, to create the app, since they weren’t sure exactly what the potential was.

After talking over big-picture ideas, Wonderfactory came back and made a variety of suggestions. “We spent 75 percent of our time reviewing options, and then only 25 percent refining, because we were new at it,” Belknap said. “We didn’t know what we wanted, so it took us a long time to figure it out.”

Once they understood the process, they were able to use Wonderfactory as more of a consultant when developing the general magazine app.

What publishing processes are in place, and what do you need to develop?

For now, the News & Record app content is entirely feed-based, using the iATOM feeds  they send to the Associated Press. The company is implementing a new, Drupal-based content management system, which will provide more control over which content goes to the iPad.

The News & Record’s app, which is feed-based, offers limited content and promotes a separate e-edition.

Belknap said the app had a serious impact on workflow at Better Homes and Gardens. At first, many of the 30 people who work on the magazine  contributed to the app in some way, but that was too confusing. Now just two designers and two or three copy editors handle the app.

“I was surprised by how much of my time was taken up by who should be doing what and at what point,” Belknap said, “because you’re changing workflow so much.”

Another workflow decision was that about half of the iPad app will be templated, and the other half will be freshly designed each issue.

One lesson Belknap has learned: “Start your work on interactive elements as soon as possible.” At first, staff waited to create special iPad content, which was a mistake.

What content will you deliver?

The News & Record is publishing limited content to the iPad; columns, for instance, are not included. The app has a prominent front-page link promoting the e-edition, which has full content.

At Better Homes and Gardens, Belknap originally assumed that the easiest stories to produce for the app would be text-based pieces that have a couple of photos each and run in the back of the magazine.

“They felt really flat and boring, so we actually did more rewrite back there because we wanted to make them more interactive,” he said. For instance, copy and subheads in print became 12 buttons to push to find out 12 reasons you aren’t exercising.

Belknap said it was a surprise to find that different stories shine in different mediums. “We are thinking of them as being different. Some have to be different ideas in print and on the iPad.”

Staff at Better Homes and Gardens have started to think about what types of stories shine in the iPad format. Subheads in print could become buttons in the app.

How will you measure success?

According to Brewer, people at the News & Record believe that just giving the company a presence on the iPad is a success. They hope to move some people from the app to the eventual paid e-edition.

Gump said CNN’s main metric of success is, “How happy are consumers?” Staff are watching the total number of downloads, the traffic from the app and interest from advertisers.

At Better Homes & Gardens, Belknap said, the goal was “to do everything we can to come out with a nice product and learn what it takes to get it done,” which includes how much money and staff are needed.

Another goal is income, which the staff is working on. The magazine costs $3.99 for a current issue and 99 cents for back issues, and there are three to seven pages of advertising.

How will you maintain and iterate the app?

Brewer said there are no plans to improve the News & Record’s iPad app until the company can figure out its strategy across multiple platforms. As far as other products, they’re thinking about narrowly focused options, like a garage sale or Groupon-style app. For those, they’d look to a vendor.

For CNN, Gump said, “this is not fire and forget. Build, but have a plan for how to maintain.”

Now that the new iPads have cameras, he and his colleagues are thinking about how to deploy iReport. They’ve recently updated the app to use AirPlay technology, which means you can send video from the iPad to a television via Apple TV. And they’re watching usage metrics closely to see what features users like.

Better Homes and Gardens is turning its attention to iPad-specific content, video and sharing tools.

Three new apps, three very different processes, and all three are pleased with where they arrived. And all say it was a tremendous learning experience.

Brewer’s advice for news organizations that are just getting started: “I would not dump a lot of money into it until you have a full-on strategy for paid [content],” he said. “This was just something we could get out there and dabble with and see what happens.”

Gump said that a company should know what it’s trying to accomplish before building an app. “Not every company needs an iPad app — although most would probably benefit,” he said.

But it’s not a choice of either building an app or building an iPad-friendly site. He compared that to asking, “Do I want the front wheel or the back wheel on my bike?”

To learn more about how people use the iPad and what that means for news organizations, check out the News U Webinar, “iPads, Tablets and the News: What We Know Now.”

Correction: This article originally stated that the Better Homes and Gardens app is free and doesn’t have ads, but users do have to pay for issues, which carry a limited number of ads.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.