I can become quite opinionated1 when it comes to iOS news apps.
It’s a pretty niche topic, though, so it’s not often that I get to express my thoughts on it. Today I co-opt a friend’s questionnaire and dissect my (rambling) experience with 

Circa, a news app that was recognized by the App Store and Google Play in their best-of-2013 roundups.

9:45 AM: “Hey do you use the app Circa by any chance?”

Back in February, my friend Hannah (@hannahksong) told me she was researching ways to increase user retention at Circa, and I mentioned to her that I found Circa’s newswriting to be “less than stellar.”

Two months later, she sent me some specific questions about my Circa usage. My answers, which have been edited for typos and clarity, were as follows:

Newswriting – what issues specifically do you have with it (bias, brevity, etc)?

**[Circa’s] newswriting is fine on the whole. Sometimes small issues get in the way. An example from today’s story on King Digital Entertainment: “Zacconi told Re/code March 26 that his company is now focusing on creating more games in order to attract more players.” There really should be a preposition after “Re/code.” But I can’t tell if my own time in a newsroom is just making me hypersensitive to this stuff.

“Our Picks is like a classy Buzzfeed that calls attention to interesting articles via a single quote, a well-captioned image, or a well-captioned video, but not headlines, strangely enough.”

It’s the splitting up of the writing that irks me. The writing can be too short and abrupt at times. This is especially seen in stories that have only 1 or 2 sentences per swipe for consecutive swipes. It’s like watching a PowerPoint presentation in which each slide features one letter, or like reading a telegram. Stop and go, stop and go. [Added note: The Circa homepage has a quick animation to demonstrate the “stop-and-go” transition between swipes.]

Maybe it’s just my personal style but each “card” that I have to swipe when reading a story means I’m taken out of my reading flow and then I have to refocus on the story.

 

Would you/do you use the “Related Articles” feature and how often/under what circumstance?

The Related Articles algorithm is great. It often does feature meaningfully related stories. I do wish they appeared all at the end of the article and not beneath individual cards. Again, it takes me out my reading flow and adds to my cognitive load: “Should I click on this related story? It seems interesting but I haven’t finished this story yet. But I really want to read this related story. What do I do? Okay, I’ll finish this story and then swipe back up to look for the specific card. I sure hope I remember.” I often don’t remember anymore because it’s just not worth swiping up 10 cards to read it.

Which leads me to a suggestion that Circa can consider. When swiping back up from the end of the story (not at the end of the citations list!), maybe the swipe can be smooth instead of card by card.

“I’m wary of news digests because they’re often pushed to readers. I only want to read news when I pull for news.”

The way I use the Related Articles feature: Very little, as a general rule. Because I only use Circa on an iPhone, I don’t enjoy spending long amounts of time reading on a small screen. When I feel like “free-reading,” I move to my laptop, where I can open new tabs in the background to my heart’s content without moving away from my main current story. In general, I use news apps on my phone when I wake up (so I can quickly read the day’s news) and when I have some time to kill. So my use cases [on Circa] don’t really encourage spending more time reading than I have to.

But on the rare occasion that I do check out a Related Article, it’s because I really am interested in the story. Usually, this is because I’ve started following a long-running story in the middle, and the Related Articles feature allows me to travel back in time to earlier developments in the story and get the full picture. But even then, because Circa allows users to follow a story as it develops, the relevant information I need is usually already in the current story I’m reading, so I don’t feel as compelled to click on Related Articles.

Which leads me to another suggestion: How about a queuing feature? Hold down a story title/icon to add it your list. That way, I would use the Related Articles feature more.

 

What are the most important qualities of a good news app for you?

Easy and quick to read. Easy and quick to navigate. And stories that I personally would like to read. Currently I’m a big fan of the “NYT Now” app because of its solid typography, comfortable layout + UX, and “Our Picks” feature. Our Picks is like a classy Buzzfeed that calls attention to interesting articles via a single quote, a well-captioned image, or a well-captioned video, but not headlines, strangely enough. I’ve found myself more willing to spend longer periods of time in this app as a result.

The AP app is my go-to for a survey of the day’s news. It loads quickly and feels slick. Superior writing in terms of brevity and flow. Get in, get out.

 

Are the existing categories of news sufficient or is there a category you would really like to see? (e.g. local news, sports, entertainment news)

I usually stick with Top Stories and don’t travel to other sections. But it seems that, out of fairness, Circa should at least include an A&E section and a sports section. Maybe even a Business section.

What I’d really like to see — but probably won’t because it’s rather unusual in news apps like Circa — is an Opinion/Editorial section. It would be a collection of op-eds from major outlets.

 

Do you pay for news (not only Circa, all other outlets including cable TV, online subscriptions, newspapers)?

No. A previous tenant’s subscription to TIME keeps getting delivered to my apartment though, so I read it sometimes. Does that count?

 

Do you use the Follow feature? How frequently, and what are your thoughts on it?

The Follow feature is the best feature in Circa. Hands down. It’s unique (unverified) in today’s field of news apps and allows me to return to a story when a notification appears. I love it because it takes the burden of following a story off my shoulders and facilitates the use of long-term perspectives on a news event. I use it regularly.

 

Circa is planning to roll out a new feature: the News Brief. It is a short summary of the day’s news, delivered once (you choose when), customized to your followed stories and your interests. Would you use this feature, and what are your thoughts on it?

Depends on how the News Brief is delivered. Email? No. A push notification (“Your News Brief is here.”)? No. If the News Brief is just something that sits in the Circa app, however, then yes. I’m wary of news digests because they’re often pushed to readers. I only want to read news when I pull for news.

Assuming the summary algorithm actually picks out good stories based on my follows and interests, then I’d be very interested. If I’m allowed to customize my News Brief as well (as opposed to leaving it up to the algorithm only), then I’d clap for joy. Circa sits on a unique dataset that not only watches what a user presses on, but also what stories the user chooses to follow (usually signals sustained importance/personal interest in a story topic). I’m really happy Circa is pursuing this opportunity.


1I clock about an hour per day to read the news. Much of that hour takes places on my iPhone, via the AP, NYT Now, and Quartz these days. A few months ago, it was a different set of apps, and a few months before then, it was another set. (Among news apps, the AP holds the record for longest continuous stay on my phone at 1 year, 1 month, and 12 days.) Every time I see a promising new news app in the App Store, I get excited and try it out. At one point, my Twitter bio said I was on an “eternal search for the best news app” (or something to that effect) because I couldn’t find an app that I was completely satisfied with. There would be one or two features that I was thrilled about but I’d always find flaws that’d make me uninstall the app in the end.