Two years ago, UT journalism professor Robert Quigley had an idea – put together University of Texas students from both the journalism and computer science schools with the goal of producing commercially viable mobile apps in a single semester.
Recently, Quigley posted the following on Facebook: “This class was just a blurry idea a year ago. Today, one of my student groups – Glos Guide for Journalists – got an app in the Apple App Store. Amazing work for a team of undergrads to pull this off in one semester.”
The Mobile News App Design class held their first ever Demo Day at the Belo Center for New Media at the University of Texas Austin campus on Saturday. The class produced five apps — all of which will be available in the Apple App Store at some point. Students will be able to keep the revenue. Judges from several different news organizations provided feedback and advice to the student developers and gave them awards.
The Glos Guide for Journalists iPhone app won Best Overall App. It is essentially a quick reference guide for the AP stylebook – the official grammar, punctuation, and practices guide of the U.S. news industry. The app breaks down rules into categories for easy navigation, and allows users to bookmark and print out rules in a PDF format.
The students who created the Glos Guide consulted different journalism professionals throughout its development. As a result, they compiled a resource of tips and advice given by each professional. Users can search these journalism tips by author. Several UT journalism professors contributed advice, including Robert Quigley and Kate Dawson.
The app does not include the complete AP stylebook – that would have caused a copyright issue – but it does include basic hard-to-find rules such as when to capitalize directions such as “north”. It is available in the Apple App Store for 99 cents.
One of the reasons for the Glos Guide’s success was the simplicity of the product, as the team was careful to avoid a problem known as “feature creep”.
“Some of the more successful apps are the apps that are just simpler in nature,” said Event Judge Chris Visit of Frank+Victor design. “Apps that are resources tend to be the most successful because they have a finite universe of content. You’re not aggregating data or dealing with user submissions.”
The most news-related app of the bunch was Nerv, a newsfeed app that piggybacks on Twitter. Nerv aggregates credible twitter news handles for major cities, and makes them easily searchable. The app’s goal is to help users find out what is going on quickly and easily.
“The big difference is that it’s credible,” said UT computer science senior Jonathan Long. “It is definitely easier to use and the information is more readily available.”
Currently the app only covers Austin, Boston, San Francisco and Portland; but the team is looking at adding more cities. Nerv is available in the App Store for free. Long hopes that local businesses in these cities will want to work with their app to provide better information and perhaps some revenue. The one iPad app of the bunch was PicBook – a scrapbooking app integrated with Facebook.
PicBook works with the picture tags in Facebook to let users pull the photos they have in common with one or multiple friends. Once the pictures load, the iPad app will automatically resize them to fit in a digital scrapbook were users can easily move and rotate the photos. Users can also add text, colorful backgrounds, and other touches to their digital scrapbook.
Implementing a good graphic design was a major challenge for all the teams, and PicBook’s biggest development issue was keeping the layout clean and simple enough for anyone to use the PicBook interface.
“It was hard to decide how to set up the pages so that they were really intuitive to use and also looked aesthetically pleasing,” said journalism graduate student Jeana Bertoldi. “For the journalism students it was hard to make the design, and then for them (Computer Science students) it was hard to implement the design.”
PicBook will have a freemium business model where the core app is free and users can purchase additional features. The PicBook team is now putting the finishing touches on the app and will submit it to the App Store next month. They will eventually incorporate a website where users can upload and compare their PicBooks. Users will also be able to post the PicBooks to their Facebook pages.
An app with a more narrow news approach was Prix-Party – which focused on Formula One racing news. Designed to keep people keep connected to Formula One events, the app keeps track of the location, time, and cost of the events around Austin with a simple list view. The Prix-Party team worked closely with Kevin Olsen at The Austin Grand Prix to bring the app to market. Additionally, their app collects Formula One tweets so users know what the racing community is talking about.
The Prix-Party team experienced the pressures of a real world app development cycle first hand, giving them valuable experience in working with team dynamics.
“At first our team was getting along great, and then as the pressure began to build we started to have this stormy phase where we were getting irritated with each other,” said journalism senior Caleb Ingles. “It got to the point where we had no choice but to figure out a way to work together.”
“You have to learn a lot about project management,” said computer science major Angela Deng. “If you don’t manage things right you’re going to hold up your entire team and just waste time.”
The Prix-Party app will be submitted to the App Store a few weeks from now. The students have already created an iPhone style commercial for the app.
Last but not least is Pxljam. This app is designed to give the “360 concert experience” by allowing all the users who attend a concert to easily upload the photos to a consolidated gallery accessible with the Pxljam app. After a fan takes a concert picture, they add the name of the band and the location before uploading the image. Pxljam will then collect all these images and sort them.The Pxljam team realizes that their app’s success depends on how many users upload content, so they have focused a lot of development time on promoting their app through social media in order to create a pre-release fan base.
One of the biggest challenges the Pxljam team faced was settling on a layout design and style for the product that really represented who they are.
“We went through so many phases of what Pxljam was,” said journalism graduate student Carlos Morales. “The hardest part was coming to a point where we could say ‘ok, this is what it is.’”
Pxljam has already been submitted to the App Store as a free download, and will notify fans on their Pxljam Facebook page when the app is live. They hope to work with Austin music venues to begin creating revenue.The Mobil News App Design course was the first class of its kind at the journalism school of the University of Texas in Austin.
The class was composed of 13 computer science students and 13 journalism students. Senior Lecturer Robert Quigley led the class from a journalism perspective. Austin tech entrepreneur Joshua McClure mentored the class on the app development and computer science side. Students in both disciplines had to quickly learn basic skills in iOS coding language “Objective C”, as well as Photoshop skills, app layout principles, and the basic principles of media and journalism.
“The idea was to bridge the two disciplines and try to make journalists who can apply to geek jobs and know that they’re going to get it because they have the experience of having built an app,” said journalism professor Robert Quigley. “And also to give the computer science students more of a well rounded communications perspective.”
Quigley originally pitched the idea for the class to Journalism School Director Glenn Frankel and Associate Director Wanda Cash more than a year ago. After this class’s success, the Journalism School will continue to pursue app design courses.
Quigley will help create an Intro to Mobile Programming for Journalists course this fall, which will be taught by freelance iPhone developer Jeff Linwood who helped teach coding in this inaugural class. The class has been posted and is already full. Professor Quigley is more than impressed with the students in his first app design class, and can’t wait to teach the next Mobile News App Design class In spring of 2014.
“I’m unbelievably proud of my students. They worked so hard. They were so creative. They had so much fun. They learned so much. I can’t put it into words how exciting this is for me,” said Quigley. “This was a really special class.”