Two years ago I tested 350 apps in a single year. Last year I tested 202. I’ve tested iOS apps. I’ve tested Android apps. I’ve attempted to test Windows Phone apps but really haven’t seen any. And here’s what I’ve found: Setting aside apps that are purpose-built for media production, most of the best products I’ve seen for journalists weren’t designed with journalism in mind.
I was at a conference a few weeks ago and ran into ThingLink’s founder. The app puts an interactive layer on top of photos. It has a robust desktop presence and a mobile app. She had no idea so many journalists were using ThingLink, she said. I think a lot of app developers out there would say the same thing.
Since then I’ve been looking at my apps and what makes them good and what makes them bad. Why do I like some apps more than others, other than the obvious reason that some apps are just crashy and stupid? I’ve semi-developed this Unified Theory of Translational Apps:
The apps that I use for journalism either fill a need I have or point out to me a need I didn’t know I had. Most of the apps I use the most are in the second category.
I’d put ThingLink in this category. I had no idea that I’d need to create interactive graphics with embeddable media from the field. And yet it’s one of my most used apps. PicPlayPost is another one. It’s a collage app that allows for video collages. Never thought I’d do video collages. But it’s become one of the most interesting and unique content forms that I do. The people I train love it. Going through the list of apps I use the most, it’s pretty clear that very few of them were designed for journalism. And yet they’re breaking new ground for journalism (no, this isn’t an app column; you can see my lists here, here and here).
These apps are translational apps – designed for one purpose, able to be used for another. So what makes them like that? I found common attributes:
- They all display information that I’m already gathering in a unique way. That is, I don’t have to go out of my way to get info that fits into the app. If I’m doing video interviews, I can use those interviews as embeddable video in ThingLink or for collages in PicPlayPost. If I’m taking photos, I can bring them into TypeA and create extended captions.
- They all are three taps or less. There’s very little learning curve in the apps that I’m using. At most, it takes me three taps to generate the most basic level of content. All of my translational apps took me less than 10 minutes to learn the depths of.
- They keep the entire creation session within the app. I don’t have to double-tap my home button and go searching for things. They seamlessly import files from the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it and let me get on with creating my content.
- They work all the time. I have some great apps that crash. A lot. These don’t. They work and they work consistently in the same way. I don’t have blow ups or crashes.
- They have stable design. This might a sign of benevolent neglect in some cases, but I don’t have to search for functions. Also, in every case, the design is clean, straightforward and doesn’t hide crucial functions in menu upon me.
- Other than ThingLink, Bubbli and Steller, which are hosted on those company’s servers for logistical reasons, the translational apps all save to the the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it. It’s the intersectional hub of my phone. I want my stuff there, not solely exportable to social media from a proprietary library.
- They all are designed to create products that are consumed socially.
This is as far as I’ve gotten. But I’m intrigued with this. Maybe you will be, too? Where are you on this?
Judd Slivka Tools and Toys 360 panorama, AirStash+, camera+, chartmaker pro, clips, Diptic, diptic video, filmic pro, Hyperlapse, LapseIt, meerkat, periscope, picplaypost, Pinnacle Studio, Steller, Storehouse, StoryByte, ThingLink, twisted wave editor, type a, video in video, voice record hd pro
Judd Slivka Tools and Toys AirStash+, apps, camera+, Diptic, filmic pro, Hyperlapse, LapseIt, mobile journalism, mojo, MultiTrackDAW, Pinnacle Studio, RecoLive MultiCam, snapseed, Steller, Storehouse, StoryByte, ThingLink, TwistedWave Editor, TypeA, Voice Recorder Pro
Getting towards the end of the year, so it feels like a good time to review the things on the phone. A lot of old standbys here, a few new things. I have what the wife calls “an app problem,” so I’ve limited it here to one screen on my phone — the one with the apps I’m using regularly.
There are so many apps. So. Many. Bad. Apps. Photo and video apps are fast-growing part of the app ecosphere, but so many are done poorly. It’s not a depth vs. flexibility so much as it is just poor design and coding choices.
Here’s what I’m using now (narrative below the ThingLink if you’re the kind who still likes words):
Still using FiLMiC Pro for videography. The iOS8 update has made it a world-beater. You can control the ISO, aperture and frame rate on it now. The developers fixed a HUGE problem with trim editing in the app, so it’s now possible to easily trim and create sub-clips for exporting. And they coded in lots of manual color correction options — white balance, saturation, contrast and brightness.
Lots of time spent in Pinnacle Studio, just like last year. iOS8 didn’t bring a lot of obvious changes to the app, and that’s OK, because it’s just a good solid editing app. It doesn’t stabilize or color-correct. It edits. It has one audio/video track and three audio tracks. It has a frame-by-frame editor. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do. A major improvement in the newest version is the ability to transfer project files from the phone version to the tablet version via AirDrop, keeping the project assets intact. Rough-cutting on the phone and finishing on the iPad is nice.
I’ve been doing some multi-camera stuff this year and found the awkwardly named RecoLive MultiCam the app I keep going back to. I can slave up to three other devices to my phone or tablet and stream their video to me. I can tap-edit angles in real time and it will save my shots for me or I can transfer all the raw feeds back to my phone or tablet and edit them at my leisure there.
Hyperlapse is Instagram’s timelapse product. It’s free and it’s pretty great, but don’t use it as a timelapse app, since there are better ones out there. Use it as way to produce stable tracking shots. The app stitches together different frames and matches the subjects in them to deliver a stabilized shot. Here’s an example that I did at 2X speed; there’s a lot less bounce than you’d expect going up the steps and the tracking to the left is much smoother than my normal awkward gait:
I still find myself using a variety of apps for audio. I’d give a toe off my left foot for a single app that did everything I wanted it to do.
Voice Record Pro is a sentimental favorite that visually shows levels and exports to pretty much every file format that matters. It stands alone in allowing an audio file to be exported as a video file so that you can split out the audio in a video editor and not have to go through weird import voodoo things. I wish it let me monitor sound as it was recording.
MultiTrack DAW was designed to record and mix music, rather than journalism, so it’s maybe a little too button-pushy for me. But if I’m recording and producing content in the field, it’s the only app that allows me to do it without constantly crashing (looking at you, Voddio).
TwistedWaveEditor is a high-quality, well thought-out app for single-track editing. If it were multi-track it would be perfect. As it is, if I’m recording and editing a single track, this is what I use. Its files open in most other apps, it has really good filters and adjustments and I can monitor while I listen.
AirStash+ is more a piece of hardware than an app, but I’m including it here since it has an app and I use it a lot and this is my blog. Anyway, storage space is at a premium on mobile devices and the AirStash+ is basically an SD card that fits into its own WiFi hotspot. I use it to move files on and off whatever I’m shooting on, particularly if I’m doing a longer-term thing using the my iPad, which is only 16GB (note to reader: Don’t buy a 16GB iPad if you’re doing video).
Camera+ is an app that I’m less enamored of than I was. They incorporated manual controls into their iOS8 version and it still give you a lot more control than the native camera app. I just don’t like the design and the inability to obviously lock some of the settings. I do love the in-app editing functions, though. You could use just those and accomplish 90 percent of your editing without leaving the app.
LapseIt is, for my money, the best timelapse app out there. It’s a very narrow app, but a very deep one. Doing timelapses requires you to worry about exposure, locking focus and frame rate. LapseIt lets you manage all of those in very granular ways. Its newest version lets you import pre-existing video from the Camera Roll and change its speed, which is very handy if you capture something but don’t want to go into a full-fledged editing program to slow it down.
Here’s an oldie but a goodie: 360 Panorama creates immersive panoramic shots very quickly then shares them (bonus: it generates an embed code, too). Anyone who has ever spent time swearing over the combination of tripod angle changes and stitching together 18 shots in Photoshop will love this. And the 360-degree shot is an easy way to put the reader/viewer/user there.
For photo editing, I’m all about SnapSeed. It’s fuller functioned than the next best product (made by Adobe), is intuitive to use and allows for spot edits, rather than full-frame ones.
I am the most anti-scrapbook kind of person you will ever meet, largely because I have the emotional range of a turtle. So it took me awhile to come around to using a collage app, because, you know, it seems so scrapbooky. There’s fodder for another blog post and at least two or three visits to a therapist in those last couple sentences, but collage apps are great because we can get a lot of information into what the Internet sees as a single picture. We can use those as the foundations for other apps. I love Diptic because it’s fast, easy to use and easy to make corrections on.
I’m a huge fan of ThingLink, which puts interactive layers over photos right from the field.
I love TypeA. Everyone who uses it loves it too, since it creates a caption beneath a photo, saves it as a photo to the Camera Roll which can then go direct to the social web or can be used as the basis for another interactive graphic. No longer do you have to waste 140 characters telling people what’s in the photo.
ChartMaker Pro is great for meetings where you’re live-tweeting and there’s lots of tabular data being presented. There’s nothing fancy here. The app creates Excel-looking charts that can go to social or back into the Camera Roll where you can bring them in and out of other apps.
These next three are storytelling apps: Steller allows you to incorporate multimedia into a book-style Web and mobile-friendly presentation. Storehouse is the Snowfall of the iOS story platform world: It’s a words n’ pictures machine with automatic video play based on scroll depth. StoryByte makes photo slideshows complete with captions that go direct to the social web.
Next time: Stuff in the bag, including some odds and ends I didn’t think would make it there.
ThingLink is a wonderful thing. Easy interactive graphics, easily embeddable multimedia. But it’s frequently misused, usually because it’s employed for a “wow” factor, rather than as something that makes sense or really adds value to the user.
I’ve seen a lot of bad ThingLinks. Here’s another in the list of best practices that I’ve developed (the first installment is here).
Lesson 2: The underlying structure is what’s important.
Interactivity is awesome. Research shows that readers like to play with stuff online. But it only really adds value if it makes something even more effective. This is the old programmer’s chestnut of “garbage in, garbage out.” Having something that’s graphically sound and easy to navigate before we add an interactive layer makes for a better user experience.
Here’s a good example of how to do it from the Arizona Daily Star. It’s an interactive layer on top of a graphic that ran before a University of Arizona football game. The graphic itself is common enough before a football game — who’s opposing who on each side of the line of scrimmage.[thinglink http://www.thinglink.com/scene/303326264272355328]
What makes this work is that it’s built on strong principals of user design: There’s chatter that’s defined by a hierarchy of type. There’s contrasting colors for each team and the players are in consistent positions. There’s a source line and a credit line, both of which speak to credibility. The interactive points are placed in a consistent position. The visual design is workmanlike, but that’s the point. What’s under the interactive layer is what’s important to the reader. The interactive layer just helps.
Here’s my guideline for what a good ThingLink infographic should have (this isn’t always the case, when it comes to photos with stuff embedded in them):
1. A headline in subject-object-verb format
2. Chatter that provides context to the user and links the graphic to whatever is around it.
3. A source line and a credit line. Both of these speak to credibility issues.
4. A lack of dependence on the interactive elements to tell the story.
Who doesn’t love ThingLink? It’s easy, inexpensive and lets you create interactive graphics. Or at least graphics with interactive spots. They work great on mobile devices and can be created right from your phone (or your desktop).
But with such great power comes great responsibility. I’ve seen some bad, bad ThingLinks. It’s easy to get enthralled with the power of an interactive layer on top of a graphic. It’s easy to forget the point of the graphic and even easier to forget the reader.
I recently taught a class on ThingLink’s best practices. The next few blog posts will have those lessons (and it’s all based on understanding of graphic design and reader desires; there’s no hard data from ThingLink in here).
Lesson 1: The interactive layer has to add something. Interactivity for its own sake is something that consumers get tired of. If it doesn’t add something to the base image, don’t do it.
Here’s an example of freeway closures from Southern California Public Radio:[thinglink http://www.thinglink.com/scene/272798133568667648]
The base is a screen capture of a Google map. The interactive layer doesn’t add all that much. Click on a dot and you’ll get “Date to be closed: TBA” and then a dense text writeup quoting from a press release. The best we can say about the interactive layer is that it gives the reader something to play with and it keeps the text out of the way.
Here’s another lousy one from TimeOut London:[thinglink http://www.thinglink.com/scene/228909253019041794]
The interactive layer here adds nothing. No contact information, no multimedia, nothing that might serve the consumer. It’s interactivity for the sake of interactivity. Blah.
Here’s a better one from the Washington Post. It’s inconsistent in the experience it gives, but it provides explanations that add some value. It also provides some links so that the user can do something with the information — like order the product.
Update: Part II of this series is here.