Times v Times: Battle of the Apps

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, September 2015 edition

UX. It’s not the name of a planet in a sci-fi summer spectacular, but an abbreviation for the rather mundane concept of “user experience”.

For internet companies, UX is an integral part of the product. Done well, it’s invisible. The interplay of icons, taps and swiping actions on a smartphone screen. The point and click desktop metaphors on computers since the 1984 Macintosh introduced the world to graphical screens. Amazon one-click purchase. The idea is simple. Attention is fleeting, so don’t put barriers between decision and action.

Newspapers are a user experience from a different era. Just as the size of a phone screen influences the design of an app, the technologies behind print production determined newspaper design, from the classical “pyramid structure” of a news report to choices in font design, layout and picture placement.

Part of the pain of transitioning from print to digital news is the hangover from many of the design decisions of the print era. And those decisions, and the mindset they created, can hamper even the most forward-looking operations.

All of which is a long-winded way of noting that the newly launched Irish daily digital news offering from the Sunday Times had a few teething problems.

UX trains users to expect certain consequences. Everyone has heard anecdotes about toddlers poking furiously at television screens of glossy magazines, wondering why they don’t react to touch like iPads. Adults may smile at those stories, and perhaps draw some pithy conclusions about how technology is changing childhood, but we too are conditioned. And a prime piece of conditioning is how we expect to deal with new apps. Pick up a phone (or tablet), tap the iTunes store or Google Play icon, enter the app name, click install, and open.

Installing the new Sunday Times app proved not to be quite so straightforward. On the tablet, two identical apps were on offer. One contained Irish news, one didn’t. On the smartphone, only one app was available. It did not contain links to Irish stories. It turns out that the Irish app is not readily available. To get the app, users must first fill out a webform giving the usual data (name,address, credit card, and for some reason, date of birth), and then receive an email with a link to the Irish news app/website.

If I was a user with a single desktop or laptop computer, then this system would work pretty much flawlessly. Unfortunately, I also own a smartphone (and a tablet). That meant that my first day’s experience of the news app wasn’t of a new news source, but of frustration at inability to access a product I had paid for. There have also been reports of users having problems registering for the product if they tried to do so on their phones rather than on laptop computers. With half of all online news now consumed through smartphones, one wonders how many potential customers abandoned the registration process.

Getting users to pay for news is already an uphill battle. Any minor annoyance can be enough to make many abandon an online task.

It’s early days yet, so its futile to judge the news worth of the new product on its offering in the first couple of days. Early advertising sought to position it firmly as an Irish product by emphasising GAA sports coverage, though the effect is somewhat offset when the front page at thetimes.co.uk features a menu bar offering “News”, “Opinion”, “Business”, “Sport” etc and, almost as an afterthought tucked in the right-hand corner, “Irish News”.

The Irish office in Redmond’s Hill has assembled a good team for their launch, poaching talent from the Examiner, Mail, Sunday Business Post, and the online community. But managing a daily news operation is a very different operation than a Sunday newspaper, so it remains to be seen whether the team can pull it off.

Redmond’s Hill can also expect to face stiff challenges from the other Times. The online launch was already delayed by several months by legal squabbles over whether readers would be confused by two separate Timeses, whether the word Times could be claimed as an exclusive trademark when both papers have existed for over a century, at one point featuring learned friends arguing over how similar two letter T’s were in the publications’ respective twitter avatars, @irishtimes and @thetimesIE. Ultimately, high court judge John Hedigan decided readers could tell the difference, and the product launched on Monday 7 September (though a supreme court appeal is till technically possible).

Legal faceoffs notwithstanding, the real fight will take place on screens, as the two titles fight it out for reader attention and revenues. In line with other Murdoch titles, @thetimesIE is uncompromising. If readers want to see the content, then they have to pay. By contrast, @irishtimes has one of the leakier paywalls around, allowing readers 20 free articles a week before asking for payment. Even that restriction is easily bypassed by using multiple browsers or clearing the cookie cache. Given the ease with which it can be circumvented, it comes a no surprise that early figures show a very modest subscription uptake. The Irish times paid product feels extremely cautious, as it it’s more about introducing readers to the idea of paying for news than actually charging them.

On phone screens, the two products feel similar. Though their layout does differ (@IrishTimes lists stories in a single screen-wide scroll under each category, while @thetimesIE goes for a block layout.

Notwithstanding the initial installation hiccups with @thetimesIE, both apps feel professional, and work well, with quick responses to touch. For a customer focused specifically on Irish news however, the early winner feels like @irishtimes, simply on volume grounds. While @thetimesIE clearly has ambitions in that area, and will no doubt engage both new staff and freelance contribution in the coming weeks as the courts and Oireachtas get back to business after the Summer break. Tara Street has long been dedicated to producing Irish daily content and has staff dedicated to that task, and it shows.

On top of that, the Irish Times seems to be the only Irish news outlet truly exploiting the possibilities of podcasting with original content. Even the national broadcaster, which produces audio for broadcast, is content simply to recycle its broadcasts online. With only a limited amount of broadcast hours, interviews and segments often get dropped due to time pressures. Meanwhile, politicians have become adept at saying nothing, running down the clock until the interview they know will end on the hour or half hour as the station goes to news headlines, or weather and traffic, or the Angelus.

One example recently of where podcasting could supplement radio was the This Week broadcast on Sunday 6 September. Just before the broadcast, human rights academic Vicky Conway tweeted that her interview on the Fennelly report was being bounced in favour of an interview with Alan Shatter. But while air broadcast minutes are a finite resource, there is no such limit in podcasting, and no reason why the interview could not have been placed online the same afternoon. Instead, it disappeared into the void, though it of course may be broadcast at a later date.

Podcasts also offer a new way to interrogate subjects, as the format do not allow for running down the clocks in the way broadcast news does. On more than one occasion, Hugh Linehan has listened patiently as a politician has waffled on, until eventually the interviewee runs out of nothings to say. The question can then be repeated a second, or even a third time. And while the same repeated question technique can be used in live radio, the ticking clock means the interviewer has to repeatedly interrupt the waffler to do so. This can make for great radio with an evasive subject, but usually produces more heat than light.

As is often the case ten, the most interesting new media s not being created by broadcasters or newspapers, but at points like podcasting where they overlap.

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