The Key to Content-Heavy Apps

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Article ImageOne of the challenges inherent in presenting large quantities of content is the great disparity in how users like to consume it-not to the mention the expanding list of content types. While you may not be able to please all of your users all of the time, there are some rules and trends that can help you create navigable, engaging, and beautiful apps that help spread your content to the mobile masses.


At the heart of successful content-heavy apps-particularly ones meant to run on small, mobile devices-is intuitive navigation, which is just an extension of a good user interface (UI). Not only is the challenge of designing for a content-rich mobile app a difficult problem to solve, it can also be a matter of life or death for the digital brands that rely on a well-reviewed interface.

According to Peggy Anne Salz, chief analyst and founder of MobileGroove, "Navigation is changing because of the recognition that the user experience-not content-is key. It makes no sense to have great content if the experience of exploring it is painful. Also, the advance of the tablet has fundamentally changed navigation and how we consume content. Content is ‘chunked' together and highly visual. Navigation is ‘finger-friendly.'"

Take Flipboard, for example. The app aggregates readers' social media feeds and news interests in one place and teaches readers to "flip" pages featuring beautifully rendered images. Long gone are the days of clicking on boring old links. The creators opted for a design devoid of clutter, navigation bars, or, really, any other information beyond the one article being read. Streams and preferences are managed by pulling images representing topics into a grid on the main page.

However, this format, although highly praised, is not universally beloved. "I like personalized news. ... [B]ut I don't really like having to flip, flip, flip pages just to see multiple articles," says a highly rated reviewer, who goes by Grape Julius, in the Apple App Store. The view from Julius, which is echoed by critics elsewhere, is that people who like these kinds of layouts prefer "glitz over substance." Julius may not be convinced by the design, but heavyweights such as Facebook have noticed.

As a response to Flipboard, Facebook Creative Labs launched Paper in January 2014. Facebook's Paper took navigation to another level with a fluid ability to move between articles and sections, allowing the user to flip stories open and snap them shut in a dynamic display. The app was designed by Mike Matas, who also created UIs and artwork for Apple and helped design the Nest Learning Thermostat. The dynamism and speed rest in the navigation, and the hope is that speeding up the navigation and streamlining the visual element will give the reader the inclination to linger with each piece of content. Speaking to The Verge for an article called "With Paper, Facebook Just Blew Its Own iPhone App Out of the Water," "You really want people to spend a little bit of time with it and appreciate that content," Matas says, "almost like when you go to a museum and you spend a little bit of time with each thing."

This trend toward visual navigation is even infiltrating old media. USA TODAY's success presenting apps with chart-, image-, and video-intensive news stories and navigation propelled the publication's return to top place in overall circulation in October 2013, according to an Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) report. The newspaper's app subscriber count climbed to more than 1.4 million readers as of March 2014. 


People are social creatures, and since the onset of social media, we've grown accustomed to having our content curated for us. On Facebook, we can follow our favorite media outlets and see what articles, videos, and images our friends are sharing. Is it any wonder that, when it comes to content-rich apps, users like to know what other people are reading and watching? The Most Emailed list on The New York Times' app now effectively work as a quasi-section of the publication.

"It's all about the dialogue. For far too long, it's been a monologue. With things like social media, readers have taken control somewhat. Think about what will engage them now when building products and services for them," says Challinor.

Breaking News and its apps take the curation idea to a whole new level. According to the site, "Our experienced, caffeinated journalists scour the planet for breaking news, quickly sifting out unconfirmed reports and duplicate stories. We boil it down to a reliable, real-time feed that focuses on just what's new." The Woah! feature lets readers promote stories they think are remarkable, adding a layer of social curation on top of the more traditional editorial choices.

Content-rich sites that operate internally within companies also rely on giving mobile users a lens into the activities of others to generate buzz and attract readers. Jeff Schultz, head of marketing at Syncplicity, believes social features are essential for helping users cut through the content. "We want [our user] to be able to fire up the app and see the activity streams showing him which posts or documents have gotten the most activity." Schultz points out that people-and not information-are often more memorable in a company setting. "People are key," says Schultz. "Often, we cannot remember the name of a file but we can remember the name of the person who sent it to us, so all we do is look up the activity for that person and we can see what file he sent us."


About 31% of Americans connect to news via alerts according to "How Americans Get Their News," a March 2014 study by the American Press Institute (API). The unique benefits of mobile, such as geolocation, add additional relevance to breaking news alerts. So it's no wonder that MobileGroove's Salz is bullish on the power of push messaging. She calls it "an essential for engagement and content distribution."

Push messaging is similar to text messaging, allowing content creators (and marketers) a more direct relationship with audiences. It's a way, according to Salz, for content creators to send "short, pertinent, personal, relevant, and valuable" content directly to readers. Because it is an opt-in technology, it allows you to reach a more engaged reader.

Now, technology is allowing content creators to deliver an even more personalized experience. Salz says that with some apps, users are able to say, "Yes, I liked this content-please send me more about this," and personalize the content they receive. She also hails the emergence of what she calls the "Rich Inbox." These messages can be saved to an inbox and can continue to be updated by the publisher. So rather than send an updated message because of, say, a typo, a publisher can just make the change and the message in the app will dynamically change. Salz points to ABC News and BBC as news apps that are getting the use of push messages right.

But geolocation adds a whole other level to what content creators can do with their mobile apps. Proximity alerts let a reader know when news is breaking in his area so that he does not have to go searching for the information or be surprised by walking out his front door to discover a crane collapse or major weather event. Often, major headlines take center stage in news apps, creating a dilemma for designers who want to showcase local stories before they lose relevance-but proximity alerts can help your content get seen.

Breaking News announced the launch of proximity alerts in June 2014, touting it as the first ever technology of its kind. The alerts let users know when news breaks near them, but we all know that too many push messages can be annoying and turn once-valuable information into white noise. So Breaking News apps' users can mute stories they do not want to hear about and even set quiet hours, so they aren't receiving noisy push messages in the middle of the night.


By now, you probably know that your readers want targeted, personalized content. But if it was as easy as just deciding to deliver personalized content, everyone would be doing it well. There are a number of ways to handle the task of deciding how to deliver that experience.

Some content providers allow users to choose the types of content they are interested in. This is the most transparent way of providing targeted content, and it puts the most responsibility in the hands of the user. Most alert systems work by asking the user to set up a broad preference and then to pick from among the newsfeeds within that topic. Not surprisingly, apps have turned to offering readers new ways to manage the tide of alerts, and in addition to making the managing of alerts easier, many offer the ability to mute the alerts when a story is being heavily reported.

"Basically, consider the reader," says Challinor. "TLC (time, location, and context) are key! ... Make it easy to navigate and personalize. Maybe offer personalization of sections or genres that are of most interest (e.g., sports, local news). It's not rocket science but so many don't think about all this."

Zite, at its launch in 2011, represented the "next generation of content discovery and personalized publishing." It relies on a learning model, allowing users to select what is interesting to them and adding a socially driven learning twist. The app selects articles based on what is trending in the reader's social media circles. And yet, the app goes well beyond simply copying threads from a person's social media circles. The app takes the user's stated tastes, mines the interests of his network, cleans up the content, and it then marries this to his inferred content preferences based on his activity.

The killer app idea within Zite is that it learns by watching which stories a user reads and then applies a score to the stories based on his activity, lowering the score of stories as they get older and lose relevance. Zite, which was acquired by CNN in 2011, was then purchased by Flipboard in 2014.

But personalization isn't all about content type and subject matter. It's also about the device your user is on. "We actually know ... that when you're on your tablet, it's a lean-back experience, as opposed to a lean-forward," says Salz. She also points out that tablet users are not necessarily consuming the same content as their smartphone-carrying counterparts. For instance, most personal finance apps, she says, are used on tablets.

"Understanding the need state of your user when you're delivering the content" is important, Salz says, because those readers may be looking for different types of content. Tablet users are looking for longer content that they can be absorbed in, while smartphone users are on-the-go and likely looking for shorter, snackable content.

Challinor agrees that the device and context continue to be important. "Mobile handsets are for breaking news, fun, ‘filler for your day' info, and sharing with friends. [Users are] on the move largely," he says, adding that mobile users are more likely to be using their devices during the day.

In many ways, the rules for content-heavy apps are the same rules smart content producers have been following all along. You need to make sure you're creating relevant content and make sure your audience can find it-and sometimes that means pushing it directly in front of them. In other words, if you remember your content ABCs and apply them to the app age, you and your content should fare just fine.

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