My semi-developed Unified Theory of Translational Apps

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?