Build A Better App

Posted on: January 13th, 2012

As appeared in Ad Age Mediaworks
By Rebecca McPheters, CEO of McPheters & Company

While it is still early in the migration process, iPads and other tablets appear to be a very good thing for the publishing industry, allowing publishers to monetize their content while avoiding the production and distribution costs associated with traditional print vehicles. And they’ve proved to be a very good thing for consumers as well, offering improved convenience, portability, and the ability to read in the dark. The best publication apps provide expanded service to their readers, making it easy to share articles via email or social media, purchase or readily locate items that are featured or advertised , and compensate for disabilities with larger font sizes and audio that allows users to listen to articles instead of reading them.

However, there is a large fly in this ointment. Our iMonitor™ service began evaluating app quality in April of 2010, and far too many of the 5000 apps we’ve evaluated simply do not work well. While the star-based user ratings in the App Store can reflect dissatisfaction with a lot of things other than app quality – pricing and the presence of ads among them – one needs only to read through users’ comments on a representative sample of apps to see that many consumers have been disillusioned by their experiences.

Although the proportion of apps with significant malfunctions is falling (it was about 45% in the summer of 2010), our analysis shows that about a third of all apps we have evaluated still have at least one serious shortcoming. The biggest issue is with authentication, where current print subscribers are told they can log on and access the digital version at no additional charge. Authentication errors, in which the app fails to recognize existing subscribers, are currently reported for almost half of the publications that offer digital versions free to print subscribers. But there are a host of other issues as well. Pages, video, or audio can fail to load. Links may be broken. Audio sometimes will not turn off, leaving users the choice of closing the app or continuing to listen, unwillingly, while they continue through the rest of the issue. Spontaneous crashes are common. Downloads continue to be a problem with many apps, and are particularly challenging for those who want to download issues over a 3G network or without high-speed connections.

According to Mike Haney, Chief Product Officer for Mag+, the responsibility for malfunctions can reside with the publisher, the development platform, or even the device if memory is constrained by too many apps running simultaneously. In the case of authentication issues, the fulfillment house can also be to blame. While issues are ultimately served from the same place regardless of whether the purchase is made through the App Store or is being accessed by a print subscriber, authenticating print subscribers adds a couple of extra steps to the process as the information is verified using the database of the publisher or their fulfillment house.

A senior Woodwing spokesman agreed that authentication is particularly challenging and attributed it to the fact that information is often routed through the publisher’s subscription server, which may not have been properly adjusted to accommodate new digital products. Problems in processing authentication can delay the entire download process, increasing the potential for error. The process can be controlled with a simplified API (application processing interface), proper testing and continuous monitoring. Colin Fleming, Digital Publishing Evangelist at Adobe, also stressed the need for aggressive testing, commenting that “Publishers can avoid many of these pitfalls by becoming better informed, following guidelines and testing applications thoroughly… Bad links and display issues should be uncovered in testing, much like proofreading content before it’s published.“ He also said that it was important to provide in-application customer service, with links to a website or to FAQs.

Whatever the source of malfunction, it is incumbent on publishers to step up their quality control and improve their performance in this area. Not only is it essential to ensure repeat purchase and the maximization of consumer revenue, but it is also necessary if publications are to compete effectively against other types of apps. iMonitor™ also tracks non-publication-related apps in the news category, and for these malfunctions occur with markedly lower frequency. The chart below shows the incidence of malfunction by type.

Mobile platforms are rapidly transforming the media industry, and McPheters & Company estimates that by the end of 2015 half of all magazine and newspaper circulation will be via digital editions. Publishers must work hard to ensure that the size of this opportunity is not limited by their lack of attention to detail in bringing products of the highest possible quality to market. They have been successful in getting many consumers to again realize that content is something of value for which they must pay. Now they must take pains to ensure that the quality of the products they put forth justifies the expenditure.

About iMonitor™
McPheters & Company’s iMonitor™ began the rigorous tracking and evaluation of publication and news-related iPad apps in April 2010. It tracks magazine apps globally, and apps for national newspapers in North America, Australia, Canada, and Western Europe. iMonitor has subjected almost 5000 apps to its evaluative process and counts both major publishers and ad agencies among its extensive client base.

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