Code Sprint Yields Important Lessons for iPad News Apps

At a conference last weekend for developers of iPad news apps, organizer Burt Herman posed an unexpected question: “How can we make news more like finger-painting?” he asked.

He was responding to a point made by Jennifer Bove of Kicker Studio, a product-design firm. She had just pointed out how satisfying it is to manipulate media on the iPad, comparing it to painting. “It’s as close as we can get to a tangible experience in a digital world,” she said.

Herman is the founder of Hacks/Hackers, which began last November as an informal means to connect journalists (hacks) with engineers (hackers). A veteran journalist and John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, he sought to foster innovation by connecting the two worlds.

This weekend’s conference, Hacks/Hackers Unite, was attended by nearly 100 reporters, editors, designers, programmers, and future-of-journalism enthusiasts. Half programming boot camp and half journalism immersion, the event was intense and ambitious, and by the end of the second day, a dozen teams had each developed a new app to push the boundaries of news and media on the iPad.

Here’s what the group learned over those two days:

User research is vital and in short supply.

Appealing primarily to reporters and engineers, Hacks/Hackers Unite saw no shortage of news nerds. But there was one group that was missing: end users. (Herman envisions that Hacks/Hackers will focus more intently on users’ needs in the future. Subsequent events, he said, might begin with on-the-street surveys of news consumers.)

Familiarity with users proved invaluable, as the weekend’s most successful applications were developed by teams that came with knowledge of specific user groups. The breakout hit of the event was Citizen Kid News, a news app for kids 7 to 11. Users are presented with articles curated daily and receive rewards for answering news quizzes and investigating supplemental materials.

Led by Valerie Mih, most of the team hailed from See Here Studios, a company that creates 3-D e-books for children. Prior to Hacks/Hackers Unite, See Here had gathered research on journalism curricula at elementary schools. They planned to visit a school later to demonstrate their application.

Another app designed for a specific user group: Quizshot. The team included journalism teachers who had observed that many of their students don’t follow the news. Quizshot allows users to create and share their own news quizzes, which its creators hope will motivate students to develop more regular news-reading habits.

Make the most of physical interfaces.

“It’s instantly more intimate when you can touch it,” said Quizshot’s Staci Baird. Citizen Kid News’ Mih made a similar observation: “Touch interaction makes it a lot more engaging.”

Bove offered several iPad-specific pointers to ensure a comfortable user experience:

  • Design for one-handed use.
  • Don’t neglect lefties.
  • Don’t make buttons any smaller than a 10-millimeter fingertip.
  • Make the content the means of navigation rather than relying on more abstract controls.

Bove also said that the top three problems with iPad apps are discoverability, memorability, and accidental activation. Because the field is still young, many iPad apps are plagued by unfamiliar controls that are hard to find and understand.

But that doesn’t mean that developers should be timid about pushing the boundaries of interfaces. Standards will only emerge though experimentation.

One of the most creative interfaces was developed by Joey Baker, Chris Peters, Jonathan Wong, Stefan Gorzkiewicz, Cody Brown and Kate Ray. Their Smartbook app (now called Open Margins) was designed to detect news-reading habits and use that data to improve the reading experience for other users. They called it “crowd-reading.”

For example, when a user finds content difficult to understand, he is encouraged to shake the iPad in frustration. As a pattern of frustration emerges, other readers are warned when approaching a difficult passage. In future versions, users might pet the screen to indicate enjoyment.

Another innovation from the Smartbook team: Pinching a page (as though zooming out) would condense a passage down to a summary; spreading fingers like you would to zoom in would offer more detailed content. Although they didn’t have time to build that functionality during the weekend event, it’s an example of the kind of gestural innovation that might one day become second nature to iPad users.

Changing technology requires nimble teams.

By design, most teams were small and worked fast. That offers a lot of promise, according to Stanford journalism grad student Drake Martinet, who advocates for a “skunk works” approach — small, fast-moving development teams. “You need to build a culture of adjustable thinking,” he said.

Martinet led development on an application called Lensio that tapped into The New York Times’ A Moment in Time project, which gathered photos taken simultaneously by readers all around the world and arranged them in a clever spinning interface. In just a few hours’ time, Martinet’s team created a slick Moment in Time browser for the iPad. “Survival in the future is going to depend on adaptability to massive technology changes,” he said.

This was a promising response to a question posed earlier by Tony Deifell, a Hacks/Hackers Unite organizer and the author of “The Big Thaw,” a book about adapting to changes in media. Media organizations need to ask themselves how they can “create value” with their structure, he told the assembled crowd, and predicted that successful structures — possibly skunk works — will be discovered by newcomers who are not burdened by legacy systems.

Expect more multimedia and location-aware apps.

Lensio was just one of many popular multimedia apps developed over the weekend.

Sherbeam Wright showed off a prototype for IndieMobi, a website that independent videographers could use to create their own applications. As designed, the site would allow users to upload video, which would automatically be turned into an application and submitted to the iTunes store.

Ross Harmes, Lauren Ladoceour and Scott Schiller created an application that allows to switch on the fly between audio and text versions of a story. “Same story, two or three different ways to tell it,” Ladoceour explained.

With a headcount of fifteen (including me), another team opted for a media-rich experience. We designed a platform that news organizations could easily populate with their own media, creating a custom-branded multimedia news browser. To test the software, we sent reporters down the street to gather original reporting (including interviews, video, and maps) from San Francisco’s inaugural Harvey Milk Day.

Mapping and location were a key component of several projects, including the popular Whosreppin.me. An iPad-formatted website, Whosreppin.me detects the user’s location, displays articles about that state’s congressional representatives, and provides links to either praise or criticize the user’s representative via Twitter. Another app called “Ephemera” sought to gather historical items like menus, matchboxes, fliers and old photos and place them on a map that surrounds the user’s present location.

New tech presents a playground for journalists and developers.

“In 36 hours we’re not going to save journalism,” Herman told the assembled hacks and hackers as the weekend wound to a close, “but hopefully we’ve seen some hints here of what’s possible.”

The point of the event, Herman said, was to facilitate a dialogue between two groups in whose hands the future of journalism rests. He said he hoped events like these would help bridge the gap between the creators of content and the creators of tools for distributing that content.

As he spoke, a table of sandwiches was prepared nearby. “Should I tell people lunch is ready?” asked an organizer. Herman nodded, and she pulled out her phone. “I’ll tweet it,” she said.

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