Developing Minds Want to Know: Q&A With Alex Watson, Head of App Development for Dennis Publishing

Sep 21, 2012

Dennis Publishing recently released its first mobile game Split Decision. It’s a funny, fast-paced and addictive trivia game app based on the best-selling card game of the same name from mental_floss. It’s available for both iOS and Android devices. In today’s installment of Developing Minds Want to Know, we talk to Alex Watson, who heads […]

Dennis Publishing recently released its first mobile game Split Decision. It’s a funny, fast-paced and addictive trivia game app based on the best-selling card game of the same name from mental_floss. It’s available for both iOS and Android devices.

In today’s installment of Developing Minds Want to Know, we talk to Alex Watson, who heads up app development for Dennis Publishing. A former journalist, Alex tells us how me got into the app development business, the apps he enjoys, how he harnesses innovation and where he sees the mobile app sector heading in the next few years.

Key Company Facts

Name and Title: Alex Watson, Head of App Development

Company: Dennis Publishing

Location: London and New York

Size (Revenue and/or Employees): 500 employees across UK and U.S.

Primary Apps/Platforms: Magazines (we publish 20 magazines in the UK and U.S., including The Week and mental_floss), desktop web and now apps, focusing on iOS and Android, most recently launching Split Decision (for iOS and Android), a funny, fast-paced and addictive trivia game app based on the best-selling card game of the same name from mental_floss.

APPOLICIOUS: What inspired you to become an app creator?

ALEX WATSON: I began my career as a journalist, writing for both print magazines and online. While there was a lot I enjoyed about writing for the web, there was just as much I found frustrating, especially when it involved website planning and redesigns. I got an iPhone and just thought it was terrific, and when the first iPad came out, I thought it offered huge potential for a business like ours. We produce great writing, photos and video, and we’ve got a lot of people who understand how to tell a story using a blend of that material, and that’s what I felt these new devices would enable us to do really well.

Here’s a trailer for the game Split Decision from Dennis Publishing:

APPO: How long have you been developing apps, and what is the most significant difference between now and when you began?

AW: I started working on apps for Dennis at the end of 2010, then spent six months building a team and researching the market, and we launched our first app developed in-house in September 2011.  As a magazine publisher, the biggest difference between then and now was Apple launching Newsstand as part of iOS 5 in November 2011. Prior to Newsstand, apps were ancillary in their value to a business. In other words, they were viewed either as the kind of thing that might pay off in five years or as side projects – distractions from the real digital business of websites. Newsstand changed that, because it delivered huge numbers of downloads and viable revenue.

From a technical and creative point of view, we’ve been working very hard on a range of apps, and I think the big change has been the focus on user experience that we’ve now got. That was certainly a big part of what we were focused on with Split Decision – a great, additive and fun user experience that complements the mental_floss brand. We wanted to make the game feel native to the phone. APPO: What apps (outside of those that you develop) inspire you the most and why?

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AW: Weather apps. Seriously. I’ve got loads of them; my current favourites are Magical Weather for the iPad and on the iPhone, one called Solar. You get a lot of smaller developers creating weather apps because the data is freely available and it’s such an obvious use case – so you’re free to focus on user experience, on the interface and the visuals. From a user’s point of view, there’s a very clear line between success and failure for a weather app. Which is, did you get rained on unexpectedly? Did you wear the wrong shoes and get wet feet?!

I spend a lot of time looking at other magazine apps, too, and any app that’s generally focused on reading. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen another magazine app that has really made me envious, but I was really impressed with Read It Later’s transformation to Pocket because it makes your saved articles a lot more approachable.

APPO: Where do you see the most innovation in the app sector?

AW: Depends if you count games or not; they’re basically a world unto themselves on the App Store, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a future revision of iOS separated them out entirely. The way they’ve taken Apple’s in-app purchase function and run with it is incredible.

As I mentioned earlier, I think weather apps are a good place to look for people trying new ideas for interface design, as well as to-do apps, for a lot of the same reasons: the basics have been figured out, there’s a clear success/fail criteria and they’re not huge projects so people are prepared to take more risks.

APPO: How do you harness that innovation in your own titles?

AW: A lot of big publishers (and big companies in general) outsource their app development work because it’s not their core business. They don’t have the technical know-how internally and they want to ramp up app production very quickly. We struggled with all of these issues, so when we worked with external agencies we did as much as possible to integrate them into the internal team so we could learn as much as possible from the design process. I’m proud to say that we’ve worked hard to create a high level of technical and user experience understanding internally, which has been tricky in a business like ours which is still in places very traditional and not digital first. I think Dennis and its brands put a high value on providing their customers with a great digital experience, which enables us to focus on developing creative ideas and innovative products for the digital side of the magazines.

The other thing that’s been important with our internal team has been to work on a variety of projects – our most recent app was a trivia game called Split Decision, so it’s not a digital magazine at all. I think publishers who focus only on digital magazines are impoverishing themselves creatively, really – there’s definitely a place for magazine apps, but they’re just one type of app, and touchscreen hardware offers a lot of potential.

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APPO: In such a crowded space, explain how you generate awareness and drive downloads to your applications?

AW: It’s really difficult – I wrote a blog post all about this basically saying that product management for apps is about both the app itself and creating demand for it. We do fairly well using our own websites and magazines to drive traffic, but it still doesn’t guarantee huge download numbers. It’s also all about your customers – if you already have a loyal customer base for your brand, they will drive downloads.  That was one of the things we felt we could capitalize on for Split Decision, because mental_floss has such a loyal and engaged fan base.

APPO: What are the biggest technical constraints that exist today in the app sector?

AW: Images on the Retina iPad can be huge – in one of our iPad apps, the splash screen for the Retina version was bigger than the entire app for the original iPad. Performance in UIWebViews could be better, but most of the challenges we face aren’t technical, they’re more to do with user experience.

APPO: How do you (or will you) make money from your application?

AW: Subscriptions work really well for us, both sold direct via the App Store, and when we sell them as part of bundles – so someone gets both print copies of a magazine and access to a digital copy via the app. Split Decision is our first app with a lot of in-app purchases. We’ve also done fairly well with direct advertising (not using networks).

APPO: What advice do you have to those working on their first applications?

AW: Do some user testing – find a few people who are prepared to use your app in prototype phase and answer some questions about it. Ideally, if you can meet them face-to-face, that helps because you can watch them use the app, and I think that’s very important. You need to pay attention to body language and how people hold the device, that kind of stuff. What they don’t tap on is just as important as what they do.

APPO: Where do you see the app sector one year from now? Five years from now?

A year from now, we’ll know if Amazon’s new Kindle Fires and the first competent Android tablet, Google’s Nexus 7, have captured genuine market share when it comes to apps. It’s going to be interesting to see if Amazon can be as successful at selling apps as they are with books, music and DVDs. Five years from now is really difficult – I’m sure there will be new hardware, maybe Google Glass will have taken off, but the real determinant of the health of the app sector is going to be the attitude of the big three (Apple, Amazon, Google) to developers. Newsstand is a great example of a platform owner working with a sector to provide some tools and features to support new apps and ideas.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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