For mobile news apps, there’s no place like home

In the New York graffiti world, ‘getting up’ and ‘staying up’ are two different things. Getting up - that is, getting your name on walls and recognised - is relatively easy. Staying up - having your work endure on New York’s busy walls, with anti-graffiti task forces and other artists vying for wallspace - is a lot harder. If you stay up, you’ve either found an awesome spot, or people respect/love your work enough to leave it in situ. They WANT it there. 

For apps, the homescreen is where ‘staying up’ matters. As one startup entrepreneur says: ‘ If You Aren’t On My Homescreen, Your App Is Probably a Tombstone’. My homescreen is where I keep my EVERY DAMN DAY apps. Page two is for the optional, lesser-used ones. When I need to transfer cash, or check the weather in another country, or find an organic alpaca fur pashmina on Etsy, I go to page two. I think Safari is somewhere on page two, in a folder with the compass and that ugly yellow notepad. 

Page two is like purgatory. Some apps may never leave. If I find myself using an app enough, it may achieve homescreen immortality. The rest risk tumbling into oblivion during periodic r-app-tures.

For the record, this is my phone’s homescreen. What’s interesting to me, as a journalist, is that there isn’t a single news app on there. There’s a few on page two, in a folder, but really, there’s only one news app I need. It’s Tweetbot. For ‘content’, I tend to scan Feedly, or LinkedIn. I have a nice stack of subscriptions on YouTube, which I often scan when I’m sitting, erm, on the loo. That’s right, zeFrank. You and me, buddy. True facts. But news apps? Never gonna make page one. News from one single news outlet? Why would I restrict myself like that, when I follow them all on Twitter, and access them via Tweetbot? (I do recognise that because I watch news all day, I’m an edge case, but still…).

Developing a news app? Oh, behave.

What prompted this line of thought was the news that Anthony De Rosa, Reuters’ outgoing social media editor, is to move to Cir.ca. Circa markets itself as the best way to read news on your phone - ‘news, re-imagined’. Circa made it to page two of my phone at one stage, then ended up in a folder. Some time around the end of 2012, it felt the cold steel of the axe against its neck. It’s back now and, to be fair, it looks great - a colleague says it’s as close to AMAZEBALLS as a news app has achieved. But I’m still not sure it matches my news-reading behaviours.

Mobile news apps are funny things. I’ve been involved in two so far, neither of which met with success. One became obsolete as our business changed. The other was meant to enable citizen journalists to share video with a news organisation - ours. It suffered from some bad off-the-rack tech, but also a misalignment with behaviours.

What do I mean by that? The behaviour of uploading videos from phones to YouTube or Facebook is easy. It’s the natural flow, because they’re the platforms integrated into most phones. Yet, news organisations want to use apps to tease people into giving them the video exclusively - a deviation away from the natural flow. Reuters, AP, The Guardian, everyone, EVERYONE, has an app which asks for video. 

They’re asking the user to deviate from normal behaviour, but without any additional motivation. The motivation for uploading video is often that you get to share it with friends, maybe your granny, for as long as it lives on YouTube or Facebook. That benefit is often lost if you give it to a news organisation. So, there has to be some sort of compensation for that loss, which there mostly isn’t, unless you include ‘gamification’ - in which case, wait while I search for my ‘puke bucket’ app on page three. The only app to build in some sort of non-financial compensation is the lovely new one from Small World News, which at least offers the prospect of producing a better-constructed video, for those who value that, and uploads to YouTube as well as pinging the SMW team.

Apps which push news are asking not for video, but for your time and attention. In order to be get that, they must either be in sync with your existing behaviours, or be AWESOME at what they provide (additional motivation). Scanning Twitter or Facebook, for most people, are now firmly entrenched behaviours. A ‘local’ news source, or nearest major news source, may also get a look in for niche awesomeness. But if you’re an app serving up global news, or tech news, you’re competing with every news app from everywhere. Therefore, you have to give even more to compensate for deviation from normal behaviour. How you do that is, ultimately, how you win.

So do you need to end up at home?

Depends. The funny thing is, developers don’t always think about the homescreen. I asked a couple of app folk what they thought, and while it’s a win to end up at home, it’s not essential. 

“On the home screen it suggests it is used a lot. But this isn’t the only measure of success. An app can be like an important, but seldom-used tool in your toolbox.

There are some apps you don’t use every day.You don’t set your Sky+/TiVo to record a series every day. You won’t be exchanging currency or finding an iPhone every day. But when you do, you’ll reach for a go-to app that might be on page two, and which is relatively safe in purgatory because of its dormant, but unarguable utility. 

News is every day, though. News never sleeps, and all that. That news folder on page two? It’s where my news apps go to die. So if you’re interested in being a winning news app you need to be getting up on a homescreen and staying up. And to do that, you need to know your users’ behaviours and either be perfectly in sync with them, or be confident that you’re going to provide enough of a payoff for them to change.

There’s no place like home.