Category Archives: Spring 2013 iOS

What I’ve learned from the 2013 ISOJ conference

What does the digital journalism industry want right now?

It wants journalists who can do a little coding, do some data scraping and parse the meaning of website analytics, but do it all as part of their storytelling mission. (UT app development class may help you accomplish this mission, as a journalism student, I felt grateful that I took this class.) That’s one of the main things I learned at the International Symposium for Online Journalism last week.

Mobile: In its various forms, has taken over as the dominant means for consuming news, but the industry seems split about whether native apps are still useful or whether the focus should be on websites with responsive designs that adapt for all platforms.

Education: There was hand wringing over whether J schools are keeping up with the need to teach technology skills, particularly in the areas of data visualization and coding skills. There was also some criticism of the “teaching hospital” idea for reforming journalism education, in which schools would essentially produce a lot of content and compete with but also supplement professional media.

The argument was that teaching hospitals work for doctors where there’s plenty of money sloshing around and the students come in with a college degree, but probably won’t work in the much poorer, less prepared and less committed world of undergraduate journalism education.

One speaker talked about instead adopting an “entrepreneurial” orientation, but he didn’t mean creating mini-businesses. Instead, the idea was that an entrepreneurial approach would have students questioning old methods and approaches and trying to come up with solutions that fit the times.

Advertising: There are a lot of new ideas being tested to bring new advertising dollars into newsrooms, most of them involving their online content.

These ideas fall into two camps. One is to take advantage of the news “brand” to sell products ranging from events (where sponsors pay to get before readers) to consulting services. Another approach, embraced by a variety of speakers, was to adopt sponsored content or “native” ads that echo the look and feel of the content. It all sounds great but success or failure depends on subtleties such as exactly how seamlessly these ads mesh with the expectations of readers.

Where the jobs are? A variety of speakers said variations on the following: They’re hiring, but mostly nerds. They said they want people who can find, clean and present data-centric stories, either in a conventional print form, visually through data visualizations, or both. That doesn’t mean the person has to be able to code everything from scratch, but they at least have to know the lingo so they can work as part of a team without asking the impossible.

Engagement: National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin, a self-described “informational DJ,” who is probably more engaged with his audience via Twitter than any other journalist going, had this to say: “I don’t mean engagement like encouraging them to ‘like’ us on Facebook or click the retweet button. That is not engagement.”

That pretty much summed up the sentiment, too many news organizations are thinking of “engagement” as just getting people to click “like” buttons, and then quickly trying to tabulate the ROI on their efforts. Most speakers agreed that news outlets needed to stop expecting any quantifiable return on these efforts but should work hard to find ways to credit and use audience-offered content. News organizations, in other words, are takers but not givers when it comes to engagement, and that’s got to end.

A Journalist and a Programmer Walk into a Bar…

The basic goal for this class was to put journalism and computer science students together and see what happened. Ideally, journalism students would learn to code, and computer science students would learn how to better communicate. I, for one, didn’t realize I would be thrown into a similar, real-world scenario so quickly.

Mobile News App Design students (computer science and journalism alike) and developers from all over the Austin area came together April 2 to share their app experiences. The Austin iPhone Developer Group, the congregation’s official title, discussed non-coding problems that developers face, such as monetization and marketing, at their monthly meetup at the West 6th Street sports bar.

Gerald Bailey, President and Founder of Snakehead Software in Round Rock, Texas, was the host for the night. He explained that the guest speaker they had originally planned for canceled at the last minute, so we were “just gonna wing it.” He began with the question of how developers make money off of apps and asked everyone around the table to share their monetization efforts or, for non-coders like me, how we spend money on apps.

Of course, apps can be bought for a fee, which brings in some revenue but doesn’t necessarily attract customers. Advertisements can also be used to earn money from the app, as long as they are used sparingly enough to not drive users away. The fact that “knowledge is power,” that an app can sell its demographic data to companies that crave it is another way developers can profit. But the main monetary resource when it comes to mobile applications is the In-App Purchase.

In-App Purchases typically fall within four categories: non-replenishable, replenishable, subscriptions and auto-renewing subscriptions. Non-replenishable In-App Purchases are those that don’t expire or deplete, so they only need to be bought once, such as bonus levels in a game. Replenishables are basically “extras,” like when you need some extra coins to build a new house but aren’t patient enough to wait for them to regenerate. Subscriptions are simply one-time subscriptions to a feature with a relatively long-term cycle, and auto-renewing subscriptions are those that constantly renew, such as a daily newspaper subscription.

The other topic of discussion for the night was how to successfully market an app. One person suggested using Kickstarter, which is a resource for people with new and creative ideas to not only get funding for their projects, but also some promotion. Of course, a good social media presence with clever and relevant content is always a reputable method. One programmer even mentioned that developers could send a press release and a promo code for the app to journalists in hopes that they will publish something to create some buzz. My teammate Jonathan added that simply “having a good app,” an app that people would tell their friends about, can do wonders.

Despite the gloomy skies due to the threat of rain outside, I found the evening to be rather enjoyable. I may have arrived half an hour early to a group of four developers who seemed to be speaking a different language, but the environment was warm and welcoming. It was a very cool and conversational setting, just sitting around a dinner table and talking over some beers. As more people began to trickle in for the meetup, I was able to engage with these professionals and learn so much more about the app-creating process.

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 10.22.16 PM

Nerv’s Rocky Road

Spring 2013 is the first semester for which Mobile News App Design has ever been offered at the University of Texas. The combination of journalism and computer science students to create iOS applications to eventually be sold on the Apple App Store is not only an innovation at UT, but also colleges nationwide. Because of this, there is very little knowledge of what “works” and what doesn’t in such a course, so we are basically the guinea pigs in a professor’s experiment. While there is bound to be great success, it is also very likely that there will be failure.

Our leaders in this journey, Robert Quigley and Joshua McClure, were sure to tell us in the very beginning that we should not be afraid of failure, and if we were to fail, we should fail big. Computer science students were accustomed to this mantra, to try and try again until it works. But journalism students, such as myself, couldn’t really wrap our heads around this notion that so much hard work could result in a flop. We like to think that if we put a lot of time and effort into something, it should turn out great.

I don’t mean to say that I think my team’s location-based news app, Nerv, won’t be a good app. I just believe that we could have taken more steps to make it an incredible one. Now that we’ve been working on it for a few months, I can reflect and really see what held us back.

On the class/macro level:

  • On the very first day of class, we were split up into teams and required to submit our app ideas before the end of the class period. It was not enough time to kick around ideas sufficiently to come up with something new and intuitive.
  • Journalism students came into the course with little-to-no coding experience. Many (including myself) felt rather useless for awhile because we could only contribute design ideas and communication initiatives. I still feel as though I didn’t really deal with the creation of the app, but rather the marketing of it. Quigley plans to have a prerequisite course for future journalism students, however, that would give them some coding knowledge before actually creating the app.
  • Unfortunately, this is only a class. For us, creating these apps is not a full-time job and we simply cannot devote huge amounts of time to it because we have other responsibilities.

On the team/micro level:

  • Nerv has a Facebook and a Twitter account with decent followings, but we could have really stepped up our social media presence to create more hype about the app (and the class in general – I’m honestly a little disappointed that people aren’t as awed as I am by the fact that we are creating something that they could eventually have on their phones.).
  • When we were first trying to figure out the purpose of Nerv, we knew we wanted to make Austin a key city, but we weren’t sure what we should do beyond that. We decided on highlighting cities that are either big college towns or early adopters of new technology, so we chose Boston, San Francisco and Portland. Personally, I believe we should have confined it, at least for the time being, to Texas so that we could easily reach a larger audience. It would be much simpler to market the app to our family and friends all over the Lone Star State than in cities none of us ever go to.
  • My teammate Zoey pointed out that we have been selective and rather blinded by our own interests in choosing which information to present to the user. Just because it’s news that we think is interesting doesn’t mean that everyone else will, too.
  • We definitely should have cast a larger net for our usability testing, covering a wide range of people with various backgrounds. If I learned anything in statistics, it’s that you can’t get a true representation of the population without a good, diverse sample.
  • The capitalist in me really wishes that we had pursued some way to make money off of our app. Whether by charging a small fee for the app or implementing advertising banners or pop-ups within, a lucrative app was doable, but we just decided not to pursue it.
  • Another teammate, Jonathan, mentioned that we haven’t been appreciative of our app, that we constantly want to add something new to make it better. This phenomenon is also known as “feature creep.”
  • Of course, we have been rerouted numerous times in both the coding and design realms. I have overheard the computer science students say on many occasions that the (then) current code wasn’t doing what they wanted it to, so they had to try something new. Also, our logo changed a few times until we finally found something modern and memorable. Some things work and others just don’t, but we fix those as we go along.

I began this class with the assumption that it wouldn’t be completely streamlined, so some of the problems I listed are meant as mere suggestions to make the course better for future students. I am in no way criticizing anyone for what I pointed out because we have all been learning as we go.

Things always sound bad when you only highlight the bad. There are so many good things that I could say about Nerv, but I’d rather let the app speak for itself at our Demo Day on April 27. I truly believe that Nerv will be a useful app for socially-conscious iPhone users (as long as they’re in one of those four cities).

Similarly, there are a great deal of positive reviews I could give about the course. It may have a couple kinks, but I expect that after this and probably a couple more semesters, it will be a great experience for all. Ultimately, I am very happy to have had this experience, kinks included, because it has helped learn and grow not only as a student, but also as an individual and a professional.

How do app developers make money?

Meet-up host Gerald Bailey offered many recommendations for monetizing apps to a group of Austin iPhone developers at a local sports bar on Tuesday.

Those in attendance included 8 developers—from software programmers to IT experts to game developers—along with a handful of UT students from the iPhone app development class. The evening started with Blue Moon on draft and long neck Shiner Bocks. Conversation revolved around app purchasing habits and progressed toward the main topic: how to make money off of an app.

Professionals offered their experience and personal strategies, from in-app advertisements to selling demographic data. Others discussed the pros and cons of bit coins and gaming profile upgrades, or out rightly selling the app.

Bailey, president of Agile Poet and SnakeHead Software, identified several strategic options for maximizing profit from an app. “In order to make money, you got to get the app in front of people,” he said. “And discovery starts with a good app, a quality product.” Baily advised the group to funnel the full potential of social networks in your favor, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as well as a website to accompany your app.

Lastly, the group talked about the influence of media. With several journalism students sitting around the table, the group came to the consensus that reporters and news organizations are busy constantly looking for new stories to cover. Therefore, as a developer, you typically get one shot to have your story told, so it is imperative to present yourself well.

Tabs were paid and the night ended with tips on how to submit your app to the Apple app store.

The group meets the first Tuesday of every month. Their next meet-up is scheduled for May 7.

By Caleb Ingels

Austin’s very own Apple Ecosystem

In a dark bar on west 6th street in Austin, Texas many developers meetup once a month to specifically discuss developing applications for iOS devices. Their goal is to create a friendly environment were all developers can come to discuss and learn. These meetups focus on lots of topics from the coding aspect all the way to marketing and selling the final product.

This month the developers met with intentions to discuss some very important topics that developers often struggle with:

  • How do people find your app?
  • How do you monetize your app?

These are very interesting topics from the development perspective because when developing an app it is easy to get lost in the code and forget that you need to make money from this application. Steve Wozniak commented about this phenomenon saying,

Creative things have to sell to get acknowledged as such.

Steve Wozniak

How do people find your app?

The developers discussed the different ways they findd apps and the best ways to have your app discovered. Everyone agreed that social media was a very big factor. Updating Facebook and Twitter and trying to get as many likes and retweets as possible is the most obvious way to get your app noticed. Gerald Bailey, the organizer of this meetup, offered a couple of interesting suggestins. Along the social media lines he mentioned YouTube, not the typical social media outlet thought about, but as he pointed if you can make a video right then a very successful outlet for your app.

The other interesting idea discussed was using the 50 free download codes that you have in an intelligent manner. When you put an app into Apple’s App Store you are awarded 50 free download codes. These codes can be used by anyone to redeem your app for free. So after giving the obligatory few codes out to your mom, dad, and siblings then use the remaining to send to reporters with the goal of getting an app review in their publication. At this point one developer asked, “Should I aim these codes at smaller publications who would be more likely to write about my app or should I go for the big guys?” Bailey deftly replied, “Always go for the big guys, then have a really good app.”

How do you Monetize your app?

Bailey posed a question about the developers monetization strategy, how exactly do you make money on it? You have spent many hours developing this app and now developing a marketing plan for it, and your time is valuable.

The discussion immediately turned to in app purchases. Everyone recognized the succes of companies like Storm8 and Zynga the in app purchase model is very tempting. This model has the benefits of providing a free app that will allow also give the user the option to make purchases during gameplay if they so desire. Bailey noted, at the time, the first paid app in the Top Grossing section of the App Store was number 26. The first 25 apps were free apps and yet were the top 25 grossing apps on the App Store.

Some developers were wary of this model, but realize that they still need to make money. So what are the alternatives? There is the advertising model, but the developer is only paid 10 cents per tap on each advertisement. Another option is the paid model. Where the developer would charge one flat fee up front, reap 70% of their sale, while Apple takes 30%. These are not bad models, but Bailey brought up a very creative alternative.

The publisher model is similar to the publisher model for writers. The developer would develop an app for a big app publishing company, let them put the application in the app store, and then obtain royalties for every download your application receives. This idea was thinking outside the box, and if you make good apps is a very viable option for monetizing your app.

Encouraged

As a developer it is important to be challenged, and to be continually reminded that not everything is a simple step by step procedure. These meetups allow developers to stay sharp, and to stretch their minds past writing the code for an app and turning it into a viable product that not only makes some money but is acknowledged as something creative. The meeting came to a close, and was very succesful. Developers left with new connections, new ideas, and encouraged to go write good apps.
Steve Wozniak quote compliments of brainyquote.com

Feature Creep

My First App retrospective

My First App retrospective

I am finishing up my last semester at The University of Texas at Austin, and have had the chance to take some wonderful courses. As a computer science major most of my courses have been like:

  • Data Structure
  • Logic
  • Automata Theory
  • Object Oriented Programming

However, my favorite course at this fine University has been CS378 – Mobile News App Design. Led by the the infamous Robert QuigleyJoshua McClure, and Lewis Knight this classes focus was on iOS news apps, and was designed to bring journalists and computer scientists together to think about the future. This class comprised of about twenty-five students was broken into groups of five, two computer science students, and 3 journalism students. Each group was then given a short time to come up with an idea, present to the class, and then begin working out a plan to make this idea a reality.

This has been my experience with this class.

Bad

Lets start with the bad.

1. Creative Juices Flowing

From the beginning my group was confused about the idea of content. The reuqirement that we came into the class with was thinking that our app had to be based around news. I remember brainstorming, racking my brain, trying to think of the next news app that would uproot
Flipboard or Zite. I was surprised the first day of class when I heard the only requirement was that our app had to have content. This drastically changed my approach, and caught up in the excitement I don’t feel as if my mind was working at it’s best. Eventually we came up with an idea that was based on the five W’s of journalism

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

From that idea we began focusing on the Where because we liked the idea of a map so much. From the map the idea evolved, and we wanted to solve the location based news problem.

2. Content is Key

We made a decision, and were very happy about. However, the problem of providing content for our app arose. Most of the team was pretty new to iOS and development in general so we were aiming for the road of least resistance. This meant not providing our own content because that would require a server and lots of server code At the time we did not know about Parse, knowing this would have changed things. This forced us to use content that other people were providing on Twitter.

If I were to do this again, I would not do this. Twitter is good and provides some good content, however I do not like how dependent our app is upon twitter, and honestly our app has begun to resemble Twitter a lot.

3. Feature Creep

The time came in the middle of the year when we had been looking at the code for our app for a while, and anything new seemed much more exciting. We attended Sprint demos, seeing all the cool things our “competition” was doing and that made us want to change everything.

One night some of my team members and myself began talking about alternative ideas, and came up with some good ones.
I’d like to mention that this is how we should have began the project, but we were not yet comfortable with each other to do something like this.
Thankfully our instructors discussed feature creep the next class and our project did not get knocked off course.

Good

These are merely a few of the good things that are a result of this course.

1. Learning Experience

This class has been one of the best learning experiences that I have experienced in college. The free form of the course has allowed my teammates and I to shape this course to our experience levels. People with less experience in iOS had the opportunity to do some kinetic learning, getting their hands dirty, and learning as they go. For more experienced developers, they had the opportunity to shape the project and be challenged by the different demands that come from developing an app.

2. App in App Store

I fully expect that our app will be available in the App Store at some point before May. We have a few things to polish but will then be submitting it to Apple for approval. It’s one thing to be able to say to an employer:

I have developed an iOS app with a team of developers

However, it’s a completely different thing to say to an employer:

This is my app that I helped create with a team of developers. We have 400 downloads.

3. Talking points

Interviewers love to hear about your experiences. They love to hear about times when you encountered a problem and were able to fix it, they love to hear about times where you were faced with conflict and had to resolve it, and this class gives you a chance to experience those things.

Final Remarks

I am very proud of Nerv and hope that it has been a good learning experience for everyone in my group like it has been for me. I will talk about it for years to come as one of the greatest learning experiences, one of the toughest challenges, and one of the most influential courses in shaping me as a developer.