After more than six months of building, tweaking and tinkering in public, BuzzFeed today released its long-awaited news app. The BuzzFeed News app, which began testing in the alpha phase months ago, has evolved over a short span of time from a simple RSS Feed that sent push notifications to a finely honed product that aims to serve up mobile news without wearing out its welcome.
The app’s launch represents a big milestone for BuzzFeed News, which has assembled a team of editorial and product staffers from a variety of publications — including the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic and the Financial Times — to create a mobile product that would showcase work from its increasingly ambitious news division.
“When you think about a lot of news apps — and just thinking about mobile development [in general,] usually it’s like: You take a website and then you shrink it. Or you cut stuff out and now you have a mobile website, or now you have an app,” said Noah Chestnut, the app’s product lead. “And what we were trying to do was think about how to build an app that we want that would inform us.”
BuzzFeed — typically considered a new media innovator — is late to the game considering some of its competitors, including The New York Times, The Associated Press and NPR, already have standalone news apps. But the product appears worth the wait.
The Buzzfeed News app follows in the footsteps of NYT Now by curating content from a variety of sources beyond BuzzFeed’s website, including The New York Times, The Associated Press and Reuters. The idea, Chestnut says, is to create an inclusive news hub that’s useful to readers rather than an app that’s stingy with outbound links.
Another feature that has emerged from the team’s mobile-centric design philosophy is the first thing readers will see when they open the app. “Quickly Catch Up” is a short primer on the news that appears at the top of the screen, above the list of headlines. It’s designed to provide a quick infusion of social capital for users who might check their phones quickly when they’re out with their friends.
There are several other ways in which the new BuzzFeed News app seems to be a product built for social media and socialization. One thing users will notice while scrolling through the list of headlines is that the app team doesn’t shy away from curating content that emanates from social media — like tweets and vines — if it’s in the service of cutting through online chatter to surface something newsworthy. The app’s modules — story bundles of pictures and text — are also designed to display well on social channels, like Twitter and Facebook. And its push notifications are shareable, too, allowing readers to quickly tweet out a breaking news item they’re interested in.
“BuzzFeed and sharing are at times synonymous,” Chestnut said. “And we don’t think that’s necessarily what the news app is in its entirety, but we also want to be really aware of how sharing is such an important act on the phone and how its use factors into that.”
Another core tenet that guided the development of the app was a stricture to be respectful of users’ personal space and provide them with a reason to keep coming back. As with the Breaking News app, readers can turn push notifications on and off and opt into getting alerts for specific topics — U.S. politics and the FIFA corruption scandal are early examples. It also features a “do not disturb” option that allows users to take a break from push notifications if they’re on vacation or trying to concentrate.
The other concession to the importance of readers’ time was a decision to include a finite amount of stories in the app’s feed. This was designed to give users on the go who scrolled through each of the headlines a sense of completion, a reward that might encourage them to dive into the app again when they get more spare time.
The app’s debut comes at the end of an unusually transparent development process. Testers were invited into a public beta program that included a vigorous back-and-forth between users of the nascent app and its creators on Facebook. Several members of the news app team blogged for BuzzFeed about the ideas motivating its development as they percolated. And the team unveiled a newsletter months in advance of the app’s launch to test out some of its concepts. This public evolution was an outgrowth of BuzzFeed’s development philosophy, which might be boiled down to the following axiom: Listen to what readers want and then build your product, rather than vice-versa.
“It sounds like a tech cliché, but it really is iterative,” Chestnut said. “It really is: We think this is interesting, we like this and here’s why we like this — but let’s get feedback as soon as possible and let’s build off that as much as we can.”