When Apple launched the first iPad in 2010, The Wall Street Journal was one of the first news organizations with a dedicated app on the new tablet. In the four years since, tablets have become mainstream and Apple’s continued to release faster, thinner, and smaller iPads. But the Journal’s app has largely remained the same, with just minor updates and tweaks.
Today, the Journal is releasing a revamped version of its app, with expanded notifications and continuous reading, a feature that allows users to finish stories in Safari or on their iPhone that they started on the app. It’s a simplified and streamlined experience designed to take advantage of new features in Apple’s iOS 8, which is also being released today.
“We wanted to really explore iOS 8 to understand how that software could lead to a better reading experience,” said Edward Roussel, Dow Jones’ head of products. According to Roussel, about 85 percent of the Journal’s total app usage is on iOS devices. Roussel told me the Journal waited to update its app until the release of iOS 8 specifically to take advantage of the new features.
The new mobile operating system was first announced in June, but the Journal’s app gives a glimpse of how news organizations might adapt to the new features of iOS 8 — and how companies are fighting for precious real estate on users’ screens.
In iOS 8, users can add third-party widgets to the “Today” section of their notification center, and the new app includes a Journal widget that puts stories alongside daily appointments and the weather. (Similar widgets are old hat for Android users.) Swiping down in the notification center will now pull up the latest headlines from the Journal, letting users click on a headline to bring them directly to the app to read the full story.
Push notifications are also getting a refresh. Articles attached to push notifications will now include a read-it-later button that will save stories for reading in their iPad or iPhone app. (Stories can also be saved from within the app.)
“Part of our thinking is that increasingly the way in which people are reading things is in bite-sized chunks, so it isn’t one continuous read,” Roussel said. “You’re jumping in and out of your apps. So with the save functionality, whether it comes from a push notification or from having seen a headline of a story, it becomes a very, very important part of the experience.”
Reading in bite-sized chunks also means jumping from device to device, and the Journal app incorporates a new feature Apple is including in iOS 8 called Continuity. When Apple first unveiled iOS 8 in June, it presented Continuity as a way to continue working on a document between your devices, or to answer a phone call from your MacBook Pro. But the Journal is utilizing a function of the feature called Handoff to let users start and finish stories between devices. Roussel said the Journal envisions most people using the feature between the iPhone and iPad apps, but it will also work in Safari on the desktop.
That’s why the Journal is also pushing out an update to its iPhone app today, allowing Handoff and other features to work on iOS 8-enabled iPhones. Roussel said the Journal is waiting to fully remake its iPhone app pending the release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which both have larger screens than the current generation of iPhones.
“We all take it for granted that email, for example, works well in the cloud and that you can pick up on your email regardless of device, and whether it’s desktop or iPad or iPhone,” Roussel said. “But what we’re really saying here is that the same thing will apply very, very soon with reading news. That needs to feel like a very natural experience in that you just pick it up wherever you’ve left off on whatever device.”
While the Journal’s phone apps are primarily focused on the latest in breaking news, its current iPad app is heavily focused on replicating the print newspaper on the tablet. The average age of a Journal iPad user is 50, the paper says, and three-quarters of the app’s users use it to read a digital replica of the print newspaper. In redesigning the iPad app, the Journal is trying keep a connection to that audience by ensuring the digital version of the paper remains a central part of the app while also creating functionality for real-time news.
The new app is still stuck in Apple’s Newsstand, which many news organizations lament as the place apps go to to be forgotten, but it presents a less-cluttered homepage that takes visual cues from the Journal’s print front page, including the “What’s News” column and the regular “A-Hed” feature, complete with stipple drawing. It also features a ticker across the top of the page with the latest news and stock prices. If a user is reading an article about General Motors, for example, they’ll see GM’s stock fluctuate in real-time. The new app also has streamlined article pages, trimmed sections, and simplified the navigation bar.
In updating the app, the Journal wanted to draw a better distinction between the print-replica and the updating-app versions. The previous app made it difficult to switch between the versions; now users can jump between them with a single tap. The app now also update the latest news in the background.
Roussel stressed that the new iPad app is just one of the first steps in a redesign across all of the Journal’s digital properties. He said the Journal plans on releasing new Android apps by the end of the year. A new responsive article page was rolled out in some parts of WSJ.com just this week, and the Journal plans to continue to expand its use of the new article page while also introducing a new video page, simplified navigation, and new section pages — including a new homepage.
“What you’ll see, between now and the end of the year, are some significant changes on the website,” Roussel said.
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