We’re building a new app for The Economist

The right approach for producing our journalism isn’t the right approach for producing our products

The Economist’s journalists watch and think about what’s going on in the world over a week while producing the perfectly-formed nuggets of analysis that appear in the newspaper every weekend.

This is what makes us valuable to our readers: we do the hard work so you don’t have to. The process remains opaque, because we don’t want to waste a reader’s time with works-in-progress.

As a product manager for mobile apps at The Economist, I might be tempted to take the same approach — producing a perfectly-formed app behind closed doors, and then showing a final app to users at the very end.

The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t work for software. There is a big risk that after lots of hard work your lovingly-made app will turn out to be something that people don’t want — and you’ve then spent an awful lot of time and money finding that out.

A user trying out your new app for the first time

The alternative to this is the ‘lean’ method of working. The approach aims to reduce uncertainty and risk by working in a cycle of build-measure-learn as quickly as you can. If something works, you persevere. If it doesn’t work, you pivot to something else. Either outcome is good, as long as you’ve not spent too much time or money in the process.

theleanstartup.com

At The Economist, using the lean approach has required a change in our mindset when creating new products. In the past we’ve worked behind closed doors, and the results have been hit-and-miss. Today, we admit that we won’t always know the answers, and instead we let ourselves be led by the data, iterating towards a final product that works best for our readers.

Our new app

The first product we’re trying this approach on is a prototype app we’re building. We want to offer people a very different way to read The Economist on their iPhone.

The Economist’s content is still valuable to our readers, and we already have an iPhone app. So it might seem odd that we’re looking to create an entirely new one. But the existing app is a glass newspaper; the way people read news on their phones means we have to do something different.

Perhaps contrary to expectations, people are happy to read long articles on their phones — but the way they do this is very different compared to other platforms. People set aside a block of time to read articles if they consume them in print or on a tablet. But reading time on a phone is fragmented into chunks of seconds or minutes. Reading also happens in ‘found’ time while waiting for a bus or an egg to boil. And many people use their smartphones as their primary news source.

All these changes to news consumption mean we need to do a better job of fitting The Economist into people’s lives. We need to offer a new app experience — one which will do more to give people what they want in brief moments of downtime.

A user enjoying some downtime on a smartphone

Our work on this concept so far has taken us through the following stages, each of which is intended to take us around that build-measure-learn loop.

Design sprint

We started with a period of user research to test our assumptions about our potential audience and their mobile reading habits. Then we ran a design sprint, involving people from different parts of The Economist: editorial, technical, commercial, marketing, user experience and product. The aim of a design sprint is to go from an idea to a user-tested (and completely fake) prototype in just one week.

This gave us our first circuit of build-measure-learn, from which we found that our initial concept seemed usable and attractive. This was done with a prototype that we created in only one day: if we had found nobody liked it, we could easily have scrapped it.

Design sprinting.

Live code prototype

This done, the next step was to turn the prototype into a reality using actual code. The very first version of the prototype has been made available to a group of users as a beta version, and we are monitoring its usage closely to make sure we learn from it. There’s a sneak peek below. From here we will iterate and decide what to do next: pivot, or persevere?

Our initial prototype.

I hope this blog post gives you an insight into how we’re developing this new app. Follow the Severe Contest blog for more updates. And if you want to try out the beta version of our app, sign up for the waiting list here.

Richard Holden is product manager at The Economist.