5 lessons from developing Settle It!, PolitiFact’s new fact-checking mobile app

For the past few months I’ve been working with PolitiFact founder and editor Bill Adair on a new fact-checking mobile app that just came out today for iPhone and Android.

The Settle It! home screen.

“Settle It! PolitiFact’s Argument Ender” was produced by Poynter and PolitiFact, with a grant from the Knight Foundation. The free app is meant to be a tool for people to quickly find and share fact-checks to set their friends and family straight.

We hope you’ll check out the final product, but we also want to share lessons that might be useful to others developing news apps.

Here are a handful of takeaways.

Start with an open mind and diverse ideas

We started this whole project with just one goal: To build an on-demand fact-checking app.

What, exactly, it would do and how we would build it were left intentionally vague. Before we got too attached to any of our own ideas, we first wanted to hear from other smart people.

So we gathered a couple dozen journalists, technologists and idealists for a one-day idea session (generously hosted by NPR). It paid off wonderfully.

From many great app ideas, our brainstormers developed six detailed concepts.

By the end of the day, we had fleshed out some great concepts that eventually became core sections of the app (an argument settler, a quiz game and a fact-check request tool) and an abundance of other inspired ideas we didn’t or couldn’t pursue (like a jargon translator, automated ad verifier, and a politicians’ truthfulness report card).

How did we get there?

Focus on users’ problems, not your own

I am a proponent of building apps that solve users’ problems, not just republish content. (Besides, PolitiFact already has a basic mobile app for browsing its latest content.)

Too many news apps are designed in response to the question, “How can we get all the stuff we publish into an app?” Instead, we should be asking, “What does our audience need in an app, and how can we provide it?”

At that initial brain trust meeting at NPR, we explained the One Goal (some kind of on-demand fact-checking), the structure of PolitiFact data (more on that below), and led participants through a focused brainstorming process.

When I say “focused,” I mean we didn’t jump right to, “Hey, give us some ideas for an app!” Instead, we laid an audience-driven foundation, pushed the full boundaries of possible features, then distilled and synthesized all that into core concepts. Here was our progression:

1. What are the information needs of the potential audiences?

2. In what circumstances (places, times, contexts) might people use this app?

3. What app features would serve those needs and circumstances?

Some of the feature ideas that would help users in search of truth.

4. Finally, what coherent app frameworks emerge from the earlier answers? Each framework should boil down to one clear mission statement: “This app helps X audience accomplish Y purpose in Z method.”

After that, we were left with about a dozen solid, diverse concepts — any one of which could be a great app. We consolidated the list to six categories, and turned our brainstormers loose in small groups to attack the specifics of each one.

Games open users’ minds

One of the sections in Settle It! is a game — the PolitiFact Challenge.

The PolitiFact Challenge, part of the Settle It! app, exposes users to new facts through a fun and nonthreatening game.

It’s a quiz that tests your ability to predict the Truth-O-Meter rating for five recent statements. You get points for correct answers and advance through levels (“intern,” “aide,” “lobbyist,” “pundit” and the elusive “wonk”) over time.

There were several reasons we thought this was a great idea:

  • One problem with fact-checking is that many people don’t want to listen to information that contradicts their beliefs. But in a game environment, those people may expose themselves to new facts without feeling defensive. It changes the psychology from accusatory (“Are you right?”) to a dare (“Can you guess the right answers?”).
  • Many apps are downloaded and never used again. We wanted users to build the habit of opening the Settle It! app, and the quiz helps with that. A new quiz is released each week, so you have to keep coming back to improve your score and advance to new levels.
  • Games are more fun than news. Six of the top 10 free iPhone apps today are games. Most of the others are for photography or ringtones. None is for news. Games are among the most-popular app experiences for mobile users.

HTML5-based development works

Time was a major factor in this project. Once we finished planning and hired a developer, it was July. Our goal was to launch by mid-August — in advance of the party conventions and the fall election season. That gave us about six weeks.

It was also important to make the app widely available, which meant we needed to simultaneously develop versions for iPhone and Android users. And we were working on a grant budget that, while generous, had a limit we could not exceed.

So with time, money and multi-platform development as priorities, we decided to build a single code engine in the universal languages of HTML5 and Javascript libraries, adding Phonegap wrappers at the end to suit it separately for iPhone and Android devices.

The approach functions very well for this app, and any other that primarily displays content and data. Developing in native iOS and Android code could have taken nearly twice as much time and money, or forced us to choose one platform over the other and exclude millions of potential users.

The decision to develop one app for all devices also affects the design. You’ll notice in the Settle It! app that each screen tends to use full-width elements that can adapt to any screen width, and enables vertical scrolling that will suit any screen height. This was necessary to accommodate the many different screen sizes of Android devices.

Think data, not content

All of the great features we built in this app were possible because PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter fact-checks have always been stored as data, not just as text archives.

While most news organizations still produce “articles,” PolitiFact creates highly structured data. Each ruling is its own database entry, with separate fields for the speaker, the statement being checked, the topics, the ruling, the headline, the explanation, the date, the author, and dozens more pieces of information.

PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter items are actually made of many data fields, so our app can easily search, sort and repackage pieces of it through the API.

On top of that is an API that lets outside applications, like the Settle It! app, query the database to return entries filtered by any of those fields.

For our PolitiFact Challenge quiz, for example, we can pull just the items that were rated “True,” “False” or “Pants On Fire!” and that appeared on the national home page. The app can then parse and use specific data fields from each statement (headline goes here, speaker’s photo there, Truth-O-Meter icon over here, etc.).

Any news organization would be wise to start building a foundation of content-as-data and APIs to support all kinds of mobile apps and other content uses for the future.

Many thanks to the Knight Foundation, which funded the planning and development of “Settle It!” and to PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, journalism professor and original PolitiFact developer Matt Waite, Poynter faculty member and grants coordinator Wendy Wallace, and 3Advance, the app development firm.

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  • http://twitter.com/GarrettGoodman Garrett Goodman

    Really useful article, and a great argument for storing content as tagged-up data with an API to access it all. Congrats on getting the project out so quickly too! Off to download it right now ;)