How a college journalist created SoundNote, an iPad app for recording interviews

How do you design a mobile app for journalists? Do you commission consultants to research a tool they think reporters will use? Do you spend weeks observing the daily habits of journalists to try to anticipate their needs?

If you're David Estes, you just throw yourself into the Apple iPad development toolkit and try to make your own life easier. That's what Estes did when he created an iPad app called SoundNote last year as a college sophomore at the University of Washington. The app was so successful he was able to quit college, pay off his student loans and live solo in a West Village apartment in New York City.

SoundNote is a simple note-taking application that lets you record from the iPad's internal microphone. It matches your notes with the timeline of the audio recording, so you just click on a word in your notes to jump to the related point in the audio. If you're interviewing someone, you point the iPad in the direction of your subject and jot down a few keywords as the person answers. The audio doesn't let you measure levels, which would help with the recording quality, and although it lets you draw, it doesn't recognize hand-writing. But Estes says he doesn't want to overcomplicate the features.

I tried out the app by interviewing Estes at a cafe near his West Village apartment to find out what drove the app's creation and how a college sophomore with an interest in journalism could make something so successful.

"When the Ipad came out, I was in college," Estes said. "I thought it would be great for note-taking."

To find that quote, I just clicked on the keywords I had typed while recording him and then transcribed that part of the audio in full.

"I was working at my college newspaper at the time,” Estes said, “and I was thinking of ways we could use the iPad at the newspaper."

He had played around with programming as a hobby before this and knew a little about developing on the iOs platform. But, he says, he mostly learned the code to build the features for this app as he went along.

It costs $5.99 on iTunes and has already sold enough to let Estes pay off his student loans.

"I live in the West Village and I can feed myself,” Estes said. “I guess that would be an OK measure of success -- without having to have another job besides this app."

Estes has been surprised by how some people have used the app. It quickly became popular among lawyers, he said. And he got a response from one man who used the app to record his doctor as he talked about treatment options for the man’s sick wife.

Estes' development of the app is a lesson in innovation. Instead of going through a formal process of soliciting requirements or getting multiple people to sign off on wireframes, a 21-year-old student thought about how a device like the iPad could make his life easier -- as a journalist and student -- and he just made it.

But it's not as though anyone can do this. Most journalists don't know how to code, and they may not have a desire to delve into the iPad development kit as Estes did. But as a developer, Estes based his approach on his own first-hand experience, which was the same as his target users.

"I had a bunch of ideas, and one that I really wanted was a story-building tool, where a bunch of journalists could put together pieces of data they were collecting,” Estes said. “Then I noticed that the note-taking part of it would work really well for general purpose note-taking."

Estes built the prototype by himself in a week’s time and then submitted it to the App Store.

Short of becoming coders, Estes said, it’s important for journalists to familiarize themselves with various platforms for news -- and the opportunities they present. It's also a smart idea for journalists and developers to work together more to create useful tools.

"For the most part, from what I've seen from both tech people that I know and journalism people that I know, they don't know what each other is doing very well."

The iPad itself also has a lot to do with this kind of approach. Estes says the infrastructure Apple created helped drive his innovation. He didn't have to worry about marketing, because the App Store lets people come across the app on their own, especially if they're looking for productivity tools. If he had to worry about the marketing and sales, he said he wouldn't have had the time to do it.

A combination of factors drove Estes to create the app: his desire to create a useful tool for journalists and find a better way to take notes in class, and of course the potential to make money.

Whoever is building an app to make someone else’s job more efficient, Estes said, has to really want to do it. And if you’re a journalist, that motivation is usually pretty high.

Correction: This post originally misstated the college that Estes attended. He attended the University of Washington.

  • Jim Colgan

    Jim Colgan was a producer and digital editor at WNYC Radio for almost ten years. He now works independently, helping news organizations with mobile mapping projects and consulting for technology companies that include the texting platform, Mobile Commons.


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