Why Flipboard makes sense as an app

Rob Borley

If apps are for tasks and the web is for content then why does Flipboard make for such a great app?

I have been speaking and writing quite a lot recently about the importance of developing a mobile strategy and when it is appropriate to develop mobile web techniques (such as responsive design) and when it is appropriate to develop an app. I’ve used what others have referred to as my pillars of app development. The three reasons; the only reasons, to consider developing an app. These are:

  1. The user is to complete a clearly defined task, or a small set of tasks.
  2. The user is to undertake this task on a regular basis.
  3. The user needs to make use of native device features such as the camera or GPS.

If you can put a tick in one or more of these boxes then you have a case to build an app. Otherwise, if you are simply delivering content, it belongs on the web. Do not build and app for that!
A number of times now, either via comments on a post or in person when I’ve delivered a session at a conference, I have been asked; “..but what about Flipboard?”. Flipboard is just delivering content and has no need for native hardware features. They have also built their own immersive UI using HTML5 so there is not even a case to be made based on the use of device native user experience because the developers decided not use it. And yet, Flipboard is hugely successful and, indeed, I for one am a huge fan. It’s on my home screen, which speaks volumes.

…if you are simply delivering content, it belongs on the web. Do not build and app for that!

There are a couple of very simple reasons why Flipboard (and all RSS readers for that matter) make perfect sense as an app. Hopefully this is useful to you when making decisions about your own mobile strategy.

The grey areas

To start us off I would like to highlight the grey areas. These are ‘ news’ and ‘ecommerce’.

When approached by clients about app creation one of the first things that they want to do is to put their news in an app. It is my job to, gently, point out that nobody want’s to read their news and anyway, it’s content and so it belongs on their website. At which point they say that they use the BBC news app all the time so surely news in apps works. I then, gently again, point out that they are not the BBC.
BBC News
The BBC, and other major news outlets, have apps that work because of who they are. Many people have the BBC as their home page. They check it everyday. Reading the news is, in one sense, a task that the users undertake. The daily task is to read the news. In this case the fact that the app is simply serving up content is overridden by the fact that the user views the consumption of the content as a task that they must complete everyday. In fact, it is often something that they want to do several times a day. The day to day goings on at ‘Browns Box Factory’ do not fit into this category. The news from your organisation may well be useful content but the user does not see its consumption as something that they need to do on a regular basis. The BBC app, and others like it, actually tick the first two boxes that I highlighted above. It allows the user to complete a clearly defined task; to keep up with the news, and it’s a task that most undertake several times a day. Conversely, standard organisational news, does not tick any of the three boxes above.

While the development of news apps can be considered in terms of tasks ecommerce is a little different. While sites that are selling things do contain content; the products, descriptions, after sales information, etc, they are fundamentally task driven. Therefore, it makes sense for all ecommerce to be completed through the use of an app and so all stores should therefore develop apps a.s.a.p. Shouldn’t they?

Well, no, they shouldn’t. One of the major issues with apps in general is findability. It can be very difficult for customers to find your app at all. Any content; importantly products in this case, is locked inside the app and not discoverable to those who may be searching using a traditional search engine. For big brands and household names this is not an issue. Large supermarkets and the likes of Amazon have the opportunity to provide their customers with a superior shopping experience through an app. They don’t always pull it off but the opportunity is there. Users will reach for the Tesco app because they want to shop at Tesco, not because they are searching for baked beans. Likewise, users will reach for the Amazon app because they know and trust Amazon.

In this case the fact that the app is simply serving up content is overridden by the fact that the user views the consumption of the content as a task that they must complete everyday.

The Internet aware small business has been doing well from online sales in recent years. A small shoe shop on a high street in Leeds, for example, recently sold me a pair of shoes. Off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you who they were or where they are, but, after searching google for the shoes I wanted to buy, they came up with the best price and so they have my money. When considering a mobile strategy it is far more important for such establishments have a mobile optimised website than it is to invest in an app. Even though the ecommerce is task driven most ecommerce websites should not be thinking in terms of apps.

..but what about Flipboard?

As you can see it’s not always clear cut. We need to be pragmatic in our approach to mobile strategy. Flipboard’s case for an app is actually quite a simple one to make. As an RSS reader it constitutes a task driven experience in the eyes of the user. My own use of Flipboard, I think, is fairly typical. Most days I use it to read articles from various sources and use the social network integration to share content that I think will be valuable to others.

There are two tasks here; consuming industry news and sharing it with others. These tasks are things that I need to complete on a regular basis. With two out of three boxes ticked, there is a case for an app.

Get in touch

If you would like to discuss your organisations mobile strategy get in touch with Rob.