What We Have Learned
Joe Zeff Design has been designing and developing apps since the iPad was introduced. We've applied our capabilities as designers, illustrators and animators to help create groundbreaking products: four apps chosen by Apple as iTunes Apps of the Week and one that resides in the App Store Hall of Fame. Just last week we submitted to Apple our first iPhone app made using Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. Keep an eye on this blog for details. Along the way we've learned quite a bit, and we're happy to share our experiences with anyone who cares to listen. There are no trade secrets when it comes to digital publishing. Every project is dynamic, with ever-changing blends of content, technology and business opportunities. There are elements of old and new, simple and complicated, passive and active in everything we do. Company president Joe Zeff recently addressed audiences in Los Angeles and Las Vegas on the potential and pitfalls of digital publishing, offering insights into how this studio approaches apps.
One attendee approached Joe afterward, shaking his head. "I can't believe you just handed over your entire playbook," he said.
Joe's response: "Better hurry . . . It will be obsolete within 15 minutes."
It's true. For what it's worth, here's what we've learned over the past two years as app designers and developers. Consider it to be a starting point for anyone thinking about tablet apps — designers, developers, publishers, writers, artists, animators, even prospective clients. Especially prospective clients. The better everyone understands the process, the better everyone can direct their attention toward achieving shared objectives.
• Define your goals. There are plenty of reasons to build an app, and plenty of reasons not to do so. Understand why you are venturing down this road, and what you hope to achieve. Apps represent new revenue through brand extension; sponsorship opportunities; business continuation to offset declining print and web franchises; marketing and buzz; global reach; a way to pair content with utility or dynamic content to make it more relevant; subscriptions; monetization of old content; and other benefits. They reach a smaller audience than websites, but one with better demographics, more undivided attention and one-click access to credit card numbers. Any and all are reasons to create apps; establish goals at the start in order to measure success.
* Anticipate flux. The publishing environment changes every day. Apple dominates the tablet marketplace — for now, that is — with multiple devices requiring multiple resolutions. Expect the new Windows tablet to further splinter the marketplace, as well as the increasingly popular Kindle Fire and Nook. Adobe has emerged as the dominant platform for digital publishing, but be forewarned that its software changes every six to eight weeks, bringing new capabilities and challenges to the workflow. Finally, consumer expectations continue to evolve. What satisfies the current generation of tablet owners may not work for the next generation.
• Understand your brand, and then expand. Identify what makes your brand unique and who comprises your audience. Use that information to develop new products that go beyond what's available and accessible in print. Ultimately a print-publication-turned-digital has limited potential. Apps provide an opportunity to become part of someone's everyday life, helping them to organize, plan, learn, choose and understand things. You can revive old content by bundling it in new ways, or attach content to utility — shopping, in particular — to make it more relevant. It starts with knowing what your audience expects from your brand, and creating products that extend that relationship.
• Start small. Don't expect to make money right away. Your initial foray into tablet publishing is meant to establish a relationship between your brand and audience in the digital marketplace, and to gather data that will shape the development of new products to satisfy that audience. Adobe has analytics wired into every DPS app, providing countless insights: what types of content does your audience value most; what days of the week are most popular for consumer engagement. Pay close attention to iTunes reviews and other feedback from your audience. Once you understand what's working, do more of it. Once you see what isn't working, kill it. Evolution never stops.
• Design for the tablet. It's not enough to make content attractive. The designer's job is to put the user in control of their experience, providing ways to interact with content beyond simply reading words and looking at pictures. That said, don't overdo it — gratuitous interactivity impedes comprehension and burdens apps with unnecessary bulk. Navigation should be obvious, with clear signals as to where to tap and when to swipe. If using Adobe DPS, learn its basic functions — multistate objects, slideshows, image sequences, scrollable content, web views and buttons — and use them to deliver content experiences that are much more active than passive.
• Think long-term. The tablet revolution has only just begun, and expect it to grow much bigger once others embrace the power of digital publishing. Expect to see more apps from retailers, educators and corporations that leverage content to build audiences, just as traditional publishers have done for decades. We anticipate new partnerships intended to forge meaningful relationships with consumers, combining marketing dollars with magnetic content to provide publishers with new revenue sources and non-publishers with larger, loyal audiences. We envision much stronger integration between content and e-commerce, turning browsers into buyers, and more examples of mass personalization — content that accesses consumer preferences to bring the most relevant content to the surface, so that your issue of TIME magazine is different from your neighbor's. Micropayments have yet to take hold; it's a matter of time before the consumer can make their own a la carte magazine rather than having to buy an entire issue.
• Know what you're up against. Discoverability remains a significant obstacle, and it's important for publishers to leverage social media and other means to promote their digital products. ROI challenges are significant, and publishers should be prepared to consider non-traditional business models. For example, it may make more sense to create free apps that reach larger audiences and rely on sponsorship revenue rather than selling apps one download at a time. Finally, as stated at the outset, fasten your seat belts as the publishing environment remains especially volatile, with new hardware, new software and new consumers flooding the marketplaces with shifting expectations about what they can do with their shiny tablets.
Internally, new roles require new responsibilities. Here's a bird's-eye view of our process (click or tap to see a larger view):
Some aspects of that process are repeatable, and others are unique. Our most significant challenge is scoping an app. We're often approached by clients that want to begin publishing digitally but aren't quite sure how. Or even why. We spend considerable time helping those clients identify opportunities to succeed and develop strategies and products that will help them to achieve their objectives. We leverage our experience in every aspect of every project — in particular our ability to design apps that reflect what's possible technically and what's desirable from a business standpoint. We devote resources to a finite number of apps per year so that we can immerse ourselves in every detail, from beginning to end, resulting in products that continue to stretch the boundaries of what's possible to achieve through digital publishing.
• Don't be intimidated. It's never too late to jump on board. Digital publishing is here to stay, will continue to evolve rapidly, and will only get bigger. Stay focused on high-quality content and business models that transcend technology, and consider the current offerings of hardware and software as a means toward an end rather than an end unto itself.
Follow Joe Zeff Design on Twitter at @joezeffdesign