Can you have a conversation with the news? Digital newspaper Quartz thinks so. Its app dispenses with the usual menus and lists. Instead, it lets readers browse the day’s headlines in a chat interface.

Zach Seward, Quartz’s senior VP or product and executive editor,  talked to MEF Minute features editor, Tim Green, about the thinking behind a left-field idea for MEF’s free Future of Messaging Guide.

It’s a truism in tech that when a medium embraces innovation, it takes a while for old norms to disappear.

It’s why the first movies looked like filmed stage plays and mobile phones had qwerty keyboards.

In a similar vein, online newspapers tended to look back at their paper editions for inspiration. They wrote digital news stories to the same length and style as before. And they presented in sections – politics, sport, weather – in the expectation that readers would browse them as they did the morning edition.

But newer ‘digital native’ entrants have torn up the rulebook to think differently about how we consume the news. They include US-based Quartz, which launched in 2012 to publish ‘intelligent journalism, built primarily for tablets and mobile phones.” It currently has around 19 million unique monthly visitors.

News as API

In 2015, Quartz dared to ask: can we have a conversation with the news? Its app, which launched in February 2016, lets readers discover stories in a chat format. The bot presents a story to which they can tap a caption for more or ‘anything else’ to move on. The experience is enlivened with gifs, videos and emojis.

Quartz has a desktop site, a mobile site and an email daily brief. But for four years, it didn’t have a native app.

Truth is, it just didn’t like them. “We weren’t keen on native apps for news. And we still feel that way,” says Seward. “Its one thing to make the web work well on mobile, but another to build a truly native mobile experience. We considered building an experience entirely around notifications, but that raises the question: then what?”

“The app is not especially efficient in the classical sense. You can scan a list if you want a broad view of the news. That’s not our goal: we want to be informative and entertaining.”

The right tone

And so Quartz began thinking about a conversational interface. If millions of people were communicating this way with their friends, why not the news? The team started building. It designed the UI to be an almost identical replica of the iPhone’s stock messaging app.

But it soon became clear something was wrong. Seward says: “When we prototyped it, we were using existing copy from the site and it felt lifeless. We obviously need to write specifically for the format to get that conversational tone right.” This is important because all the content in the app is written by staffers. It’s only the users’ interactions that are controlled by bots.

Admittedly limited

The Quartz app presents around 20 stories a day. Obviously, this is much more limited than a regular news app with menus and lists. But that’s the point, says Seward. “The app is not especially efficient in the classical sense. You can scan a list if you want a broad view of the news. That’s not our goal: we want to be informative and entertaining.”

For this reason perhaps, the app has divided readers sharply. Some hate it. Others adore it. Quartz initially expected readers to open the app once a day, but found most open it twice a day and spend between four and five minutes with it.

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