“How the FT shifted from native apps to web apps” - Steve Pinches at Hacks/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 28 February 2012

At the last Hacks/Hackers London meet-up Steve Pinches from the FT gave a very open and frank talk about their work in the mobile space. He is product manager for that area, and was talking particularly about their move to HTML5 web apps and away from native apps.

“Ground zero” he said, if you are a mobile product manager is the question “what is your mobile strategy?” Apps may be part of a mobile strategy, but they are not a strategy by themselves. The FT actually has a long history of involvement with mobile, having even had a mobile network on tri-band phones at one point, but the focus now, Steve said, has to be on “what are you trying to do on mobile that you are not doing in the paper or on the web already.”

The FT has had a focus on really knowing their consumer for a long time. They want to be channel agnostic - i.e. if you have a subscription you can read the content however you want, on any device you want. They also know that people really come to them specifically to find to information and to read articles. Their usage patterns show a lot less serendipitous browsing around.

One of the advantages of their new approach is that they can deliver new features simultaneously across the whole range of devices, rather than have a mismatched set of specs. “Web design is ragged” Steve said, “people are used to designs not fitting on their screen.” This isn’t true of mobile, and the FT try and make sure the experience always feels tailored. The question they don’t face now is “Once you’ve done it for iPad, and you’ve got your beautifully curated iPad product, how do you do that for Android?”

In shifting to web apps, Steve outlined some key learnings for the FT:

  • Storing data offline is tricky - during development they had to raise iOS and Android bugs with Apple and Google as they discovered device level problems.
  • Testing web apps is very difficult - there is no closed ecosystem and new devices arrive on the market all the time.
  • Web apps are not easy to build, but they do make future cross-platform development easier. Though still not easy.
  • The FT are having to build ad functionality themselves - the ad ecosystem isn’t web app ready
  • “A focused, small team with a common vision but a collegiate approach works very well”
  • Design has to work with the technology and the team developing it, not against it. Don’t hand over flat PDFs.

Steve said that what you see on the phone as the front end is just the tip of the iceberg. Apart from the front-end layer, the FT also need unified ad serving, unified analytics, and are building a unified personalisation layer. Their early infrastructure was under-pinned by RSS feeds, but they are moving towards an API driven approach.

I was reminded that very often in tech when it looks like a business has solved a hard problem, it probably means that they have uncovered two more that they need to tackle.

Another point I particularly liked in Steve’s talk was his reminder of the fragmented user experience of your content across mobile devices. “It is just so easy to obsess about a beautiful app that all your users visit online” when actually they are consuming your content via mobile Safari embedded in a Twitter client, Flipboard, links on Facebook and so on, and you need to decide if you are going to try and force a fleeting deep-link referrer from Google to install a chunky web app before they can view a thing.

He also cautioned against any new editorial processes or staff for mobile. The FT had, he said, been really careful not to create a ghost organisation that just shuffles content around from one place or another: “We should be able to do that with technology.”

Next...

The next Hacks/Hackers London meet-up is on Wednesday 28 March, and don’t forget you can get 16 sets of notes from previous talks in my Hacks/Hackers London ebook for Kindle.

Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks brings together notes from 16 talks, including those from Martin Rosenbaum, Stephen Grey, Alastair Dant, Scott Byrne-Fraser and Wendy Grossman. It looks at topics of interest to journalists and programers alike, including freedom of information, processing big data sets to tell stories, social activism hack camps, the future of interactive technologies, and using social media to cover your tracks - or uncover those of somebody else.
Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks for Kindle is £1.14.

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