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An App I Like: Quartz

Quartz describes its app as “news in a whole new way”. A big claim, but accurate. It takes some getting used to, says Paul Hood, but he, for one, is a fan!

By Paul Hood

Odd. Quirky. Strange.

These were words that came up quite frequently as first reactions to Quartz’s news app when I showed it to a few friends and colleagues.

And it’s true, the interface is a bit quirky, and as such, it takes a bit of getting used to, but nonetheless, two months after its launch, I still have it as one of the 16 apps on my mobile home screen.

It has become an app I like.

With their new app (which is currently only available to iPhone users, although an android version will be coming soon), Quartz has dispensed with the conventional approach to delivering news to small screens. Instead of lists of topics and a “Latest news” section, content is delivered through a chat messaging interface.

Yes, it feels odd. Certainly to start with.

But stick with it. Although it’s an unconventional approach to publishing news, the content experience has similarities to messaging apps, content platforms that are experiencing huge growth and wide adoption across all demographics.

A recent Pew Research report showed that text-messaging apps are the most popular smartphone feature. Text-based interaction is driving a wave of companies, big and small, to invest millions into developing bots that don't sound that far off from what the Quartz app is trying to do.

Another interesting feature of the app is that the news it delivers is a mix of stories from Quartz’s in-house editorial team and third-party sources. The stories are delivered to readers as a series of messages, or for the most important ones, via push notifications.

These short, in-app messages are presented via a chat interface. A message bubble appears – just as you'd see if someone was typing to you on iMessage. The first “text” you receive introduces a particular story, and from there you can interact in a few different ways.

The app creates a message bubble of your own that you can use to “respond” to each story with. The readers’ choice of response is currently limited to either a choice of emojis or prepopulated text responses to a question posed by the Quartz team, but it’s easy to see this feature being developed further in the coming months.

For example, I was prompted with a story about the editor of a major Hong Kong newspaper being fired after running a front-page story about local politicians and businessmen being linked to the Panama Papers. I was then given the option to explore this story more deeply by “replying” with a “has this happened before?” message. This was the only prepopulated option at my disposal for this story, but for others, there are two or three options that the reader can choose from. When I submitted my response to find out more, the app then delivered a further “related” story.

Another popular prepopulated response option (“anything else?”) lets you skip to whatever story is next in the queue. You can tap any of the original messages coming from Quartz at any time during this back and forth to open the full story in an in-app browser.

So… will this unconventional method and format of delivering news catch on?

Time will tell; it will be interesting to see.

My guess is that it could appeal to younger audiences; today’s late teens and early twenty-somethings who have grown up with smartphones as their primary media-consumption device, and are seemingly content with flicking through lots of headline-length articles for their news.

For time-poor business execs whose news-consumption patterns have been established over a longer period, I’m not sure how readily they will adopt such a radically unconventional delivery method. I’m not sure Quartz’s new app will win too many core readers from established UK news brands, some of which have developed excellent apps where the presentation of the most important news stories, and the extensive user choice offered by more traditional navigation options, will be much more familiar and comfortable.

Finding a business model for general news websites and apps has proved to be a big challenge for publishers. By turning the presentation of the news into personalised, bite-sized chunks, Quartz are taking a bet that they’ll be able to integrate similarly short and punchy ad messages into the stream. If these are contextually relevant and not over-intrusive, then it could offer advertisers a fresh new way to engage with readers of particular stories.

This kind of ad experience would be in line with the way that Twitter’s promoted tweets are injected into readers’ streams in a relatively frictionless way.

I’m speculating on this point; so far, my experience of the new app has been ad-free, but clearly Quartz will have thought this through and have some options ready to trial in due course.

What Quartz has done with its new app is a radical and brave experiment. How well it manages to monetise it, how many users it attracts and whether the delivery format is readily adopted – these are important questions. It’s too early to answer them yet.

It might seem a little quirky for now. A fresh and unfamiliar approach, but in a world of digital publishing where formulae for consistent commercial success still haven’t been discovered, bravery is to be applauded.

Quartz can be downloaded from the App Store.