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Jan. 29, 2014, 10 a.m.

Inside Inside: The new mobile app could use a little consistency

It’s hard to critique a news app just after launch, but Inside may need some improved organization to reach to more ambitious news consumers.

After two days with the betas of Inside the app and, it’s safe to say the new mobile news aggregator has a lot of potential and its fair share of launch flaws.

inside-logoOn the plus side, the Inside formula — 300 characters, 40 words, 10 facts per update, designed to meet founder Jason Calacanis’ own idea of how he wants his news — is scannable and works most of the time, enabling easy grazing and quick consumption. (See my Q&A with Calacanis about the ideas behind Inside.)

The deck-of-cards-like UX — which layers stories in a topic behind swipeable screens that can be pulled from the deck or added back — is slick. The original source for each story is clear and accessible. The actions for each story is limited to thumbs up or thumbs down, comment, and share. The nav bar (at the bottom in the app, on the left in the browser) is equally uncluttered and constant: My Feed, Top News, All Updates, Topics, Profile. Follow or unfollow for topics is one click.

I haven’t used it long enough to be sure how well the customizations works. Using thumbs down eventually should lead to a topic being blocked; thumbs up will help it learn what I like. Calacanis says email alerts and possibly an email roundup could be be coming, which would add to the value for some of us.

jason-calacanis-ccBut does it solve any problems for a user? Calacanis wants it to reduce the noise of getting the news. If a user is willing to rely on Inside to get just enough news on a story — not all breaking reports or complete aggregation — it will probably be sufficient most of the time. I’ve been trying Yahoo News Digest, which most days is too stripped down for me to feel like it’s hitting the high notes I want in terms of story selection. Unlike Yahoo News Digest, Inside is producing updates as they happen, which means it has to have realtime currency.

Inside’s “all topic” stream can be overwhelming, but the Top News feed — a curation of curations — takes it down to a manageable what-I-need-to-know-now roar. The lead items as I write Tuesday are about the minimum wage, the State of the Union, Ukraine abolishing anti-protest laws, and Apple’s drop in share price. Clicking on “all” shows that there have been four updates since I last checked; those include the Pro Bowl’s TV ratings, an explanation about why there are four Republican SOTU responses, and jaywalking in New York — probably more than sufficient for the average user who just wants to keep up.

Some of the flaws stem from the founder’s definition of a lean startup launching with a minimum viable product. To me, in-app topic search is a minimum requirement; to Calacanis, it’s something that can be added later. In the browser version, the user can play a newfangled version of “Pin the Topic” by adding any possible keyword after in the browser nav bar, then following if a topic is found. The topics are listed alphabetically without even a way to hop from letter to letter. In the app, unlike the browser, there’s no quick way to look for a topic. At one point, I started adding topics to follow the browser just so I could see them in the app.

An almost informal approach to information architecture is another example. Part of Inside’s charm is the simple, limited tagging — three categories per entry — and the curator’s ability to create a wide variety of macro and micro categories. But the mix of curators (Calacanis won’t say how many freelance curators are producing Inside) and the different ways a curator might approach a story can make it difficult for a user to get all the related stories.

For instance, the uproar over Grantland’s Dr. V story produced myriad posts and news stories. So far, I’ve found two references on Inside, and neither links to the other. One, to a Jezebel story, is tagged for “golf” and “YouTube” but not “Grantland” or “ESPN.” (Its also a flawed synopsis. Terse is good, but the curators have to nail the details.) The ESPN ombudsman’s response is tagged for the latter two plus “media.” Neither is tagged for “LGBT” or “transgender” — a huge gap. With the right tags, the stories would show up in the right places in the deck of cards. Another example: “Edward Snowden” isn’t always cross-referenced with “NSA.”

Adding hierarchy will complicate matters a bit but ultimately make it more useful, as topics can be narrowed down and connected less randomly.

The website will show all topics but is only truly functional if you log in; it’s usable, but the optimal way to use Inside is as an app. The iPhone app is live, as is a BlackBerry version (yes, odd, but it’s courtesy of a paid partnership); Android is in the pipeline but not submitted to Google Play yet. Plans call for Windows Phone to follow.

For now, the only way to sign up for Inside is through the app; the web process is stuck in a beta waiting-list loop that collects email addresses and redirects to But the app cleared the iPhone store when it was supposed to, which puts it ahead of some other launches.

The combination of the Inside brand, Calacanis, and publicity will get it a fair number of first-look users. Delivering on the promise and achieving some curating consistency will be key to keeping them coming back.

Photo of Jason Calacanis by Christopher Michel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2014, 10 a.m.
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