16 4 / 2014

How to Shine in Cupertino

How does Apple choose what apps to feature in their store? While it certainly comes from high downloads, positive ratings and good press, these numbers don’t just show up overnight. They can only happen if people know about your app and like it enough to spread the word. How do you create an app like that? Give users a reason to keep coming back.

Newness Factor:

Each time a user launches your app, it should have something new to offer that wasn’t there before. Think of your app like a social networking site that you refresh to find something new.  Magazines, for example, generally publish their content monthly, or weekly at best. Imagine if magazines pushed out new content more frequently; users would be launching the app multiple times a day to read what’s new. Free trials, previews, and incorporating all your social networking sites into your app can be useful tools to showcase such content, and engage users new and old alike, as seen below in our storefront.

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Point of Difference:

Another important reason for a user to return to your app is what I call its “point of difference.” What makes your app stand out from all other apps? Besides basic functionality, figure out what that extra oomph to the user experience could be. Whether it’s amazing graphics, especially fast and fluid performance, or a novel feature unique to your app, this distinguisher is key. A feature unique to our apps is Stream, demonstrated below, it is a visual archive from both the publication and reader of shared and saved content in app and from the web.

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While in a perfect world, I would be able to simply say, “Follow these steps and your app will be one of the best on the App Store” — I know it is easier said than done. But to me, these are truly the most important considerations an app developer can do to draw more downloads and keep users coming back for more.

Areeb Ahmad is Director of Quality Assurance in Noida, India. Follow him on Twitter @areebahmad.

 

12 3 / 2014

Run, Bison, run! 5 ways Spotlight Media publishes and promotes ‘Bison Illustrated,’ a killer digital magazine

Spotlight Media publishes Bison Illustrated, the official magazine for the Bison Athletics teams at North Dakota State University.  They’ve taken a valuable lesson from the varsity football team, who recently won their third straight FCS title in January: don’t walk when you can run! As Mike Dragosavich, Founder of Spotlight Media Publishing puts it, “We produced a full functioning app on the app stores within no time. It’s an efficient process, period.”

Incorporating the MAZ publishing platform into their media strategy, Bison Illustrated has entered the app market with an engaging and truly cross-platform product line. And they’ve done it all without adding any additional staff or resources. 

Take a page from their playbook, and learn how to make your app just as competitive as theirs:

1.  In-App Navigation and Custom Help Pages

Spotlight Media craftily included custom help pages into their issues. They quickly familiarize the reader with the navigation and media icons they should look out for, the designated areas to visit, and a “visual” table of contents leading to coach and athlete interviews, team schedules, and game summaries.

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2.  Featured Video Content

Based on an engagement study that MAZ conducted recently, pages that have a video button are four times more likely to be tapped. Bison Illustrated has video all over it.  And once tapped, the metric for time spent in-page sky rockets.  

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3.  Custom Landing Page for Promotion

In addition to promoting the Bison Illustrated app through their own properties (website, print, and social), they actually made an exclusive landing page just for the app. And it’s awesome.

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4.  Advertising: Interactive and Social Ads

Spotlight extends the digital canvas to their advertisers as well.  Check out this in-app advertisement for Pratek Philippe watches, which includes a play button for a video ad, a web button to take the reader to Pratek’s online destination (without ever leaving the app), and MAZ’s patent-pending Stream technology, which allows the user to “cut out” and share anything they see to their favorite social media site, their friend’s inbox, or even via a text message.

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5.  E-Commerce

On a tablet or smartphone, anything can be made purchasable. For example, Spotlight has integrated One Herd, their clothing line for Bison sports fans.  Users can browse the inventory, tap to learn more, share, and purchase — all in the app!

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Don’t just take my word for it, though — download the free Bison Illustrated app on iTunes or Google Play, and see for yourself. And check out MAZ Publishing if you’re curious how we can help you create and optimize your app, too!

Mike Ram is a Business Development Manager in New York. Find him on LinkedIn.

10 1 / 2014

MAZ partner FOUR hailed UK’s Best Food Magazine

Congratulations are in order: MAZ partner FOUR just won Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards’ Best UK Food Magazine for 2013! We are proud to power the app for such a superlative publication and team. Read FOUR’s news post here, and check out their app here. Treat yourself!

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17 12 / 2013

Being A Web Engineer at MAZ India

I’ve been working at MAZ’s Noida, India office for almost a year. I’m a web engineer, focused on Ruby on Rails, and I’d like to share what it is like to work at MAZ. Prior to joining the office, I had worked at a much bigger company, and switching to MAZ was important to me; while the startup culture demands a lot of effort, it comes with many rewards.

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From the first impression, I was excited to join the company. Unlike at big companies, I was immediately able to interact with the founders, be involved with plans for the future, and work together with everyone in the office towards shared goals. The MAZ culture is very straightforward, and there are no bad surprises amongst the team.

I felt welcome from the very first day. We have lunch together, we share jokes, and discuss not only work but also politics, sports and family. What some people don’t know about product development is how crucial every detail is. The type of team I work with needs to have trust in order to get the job done, and I am lucky to work with a team full of ex-Apple, ex-Adobe, and self-starters. We all learn from each other.

The way India works is that we can come and go from the office at any time, as long as we have our responsibilities in order. We have meetings every other day, and every two weeks with the New York office. Though it can be hard with the 10.5 hour time difference, we are constantly communicating and sharing feedback with the entire team.

To me, it is unique that our offices are full of people who are so passionate, not only about our line of work, but with many things — we have a singer, a spear fisherman, a motorcyclist, and more.  We are able to spend time together outside of the office, celebrate our achievements, play games, eat potluck meals, and always work hard.

MAZ is a place of constant change, and I am excited and happy to be a part of it.

Abhas Goyal is a Senior Product Developer for Ruby on Rails in Noida, India.

12 12 / 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Apple’s Knowledge Navigator

Before there was Siri, before the iPad, before FaceTime, even before WiFi — there was Knowledge Navigator.

 

26 years ago, John Sculley - then CEO of Apple - thus envisioned the future of computer design and user interface. I don’t recall seeing this in 1987, but I’m sure I would have thought it was science fiction, just like Star Wars or E.T. Today, that very fiction is the norm. The advent of smart mobile devices have brought us exactly what was prophesied by Knowledge Navigator. Like the professor in the video above,I use a virtual butler, Siri, to get weather updates.  I use FaceTime to have a visual conference with friends. To get digital content and news, I turn to my iPad. And like the professor, as it happens, Apple is the brand with which I interface.

However far-fetched it seemed at the time, Knowledge Navigator helped its audience to reimagine what technology could be. I’m without doubt that tech will evolve at an even more incredible pace in the next quarter century. How it will impact the way we communicate with each other, and how we consume content, remains open to debate.

Kamahnie Buckle manages business development at MAZ. You can find him tweeting @KamahnieB.

04 12 / 2013

Time to Rethink Magazine Apps

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether magazines are failing on tablets, and if publishers should rethink their tablet/mobile strategies. Here at MAZ, we have had the privilege of working with hundreds of publishers to help them create and better understand their tablet strategies, and therefore the time to think about how we can improve both the user experience and sales figures for these apps.

Let’s get one thing straight: consumers are absolutely interested in reading magazines on their tablets. Newsstands apps, which are typically free in the App Store, in fact see very promising download numbers. But once they’ve downloaded the app, readers are typically asked to make a decision: either buy a single issue, or subscribe to the app outright. And that’s where the problem starts. There is a significant delta between the total number of app downloads and those that convert into a subscription or a one-time in-app purchase.

Let’s say I like cooking and search for some cooking terms in the App Store, then download a food publication that looks interesting. But once I open it, I’m not yet sure if I want to purchase/pay for anything. If the publication is forcing me to make that decision right off the bat, I will most likely just delete the app. It’s a lot of commitment upfront; in the heyday of print mags, I doubt anybody ever purchased a magazine for the first time without at least skimming through an issue at a friend’s home or the corner store.

So how does a publisher solve this problem? We looked at this question long and hard at MAZ, and decided to change our approach to Newsstand app.  We updated all of our 600+ apps, converting each to be a “hub” for their publication rather than simply a digital reader (which is, unfortunately, still the industry standard). So now when you download a MAZ powered app, such as the free Inc. Magazine app, you are now taken to their digital hub - including live feeds from their website, Twitter, and Pinterest board, along with the opportunity to purchase an issue or subscription. The idea is to let consumers experience content from the publisher by aggregating various feeds, such as the publisher’s website, blog and social media platforms. This gives the user several reasons to keep the app, as they can:

1. Get all of the publisher’s free web and social content in one place.

2. Become familiar with the type of content to expect from the publisher should they make a purchase.

3) Enjoy whatever other free content the publishers might want to offer as an incentive to pay for the priced content. (On this last point, Inc. offers a free back issue, though the possibilities are limitless here.)

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As long as the app stays installed on the device, the publisher can now market to that user using push notifications, featured web content, featured video content, and so on. Using these tools, you can build brand loyalty over time.

We believe this new approach to Newsstand magazine apps will lead to higher engagement with the apps, less deletion, and ultimately more purchases. Our publishers are already seeing a significant spike in the usage of their apps as a direct result of shifting to the “hub” approach. Users now see these apps as a multi-faceted brand and content center instead of just a place to either buy something or get out.

Shouvik Paul is the VP of Business Development at MAZ. Hailing from San Francisco, he tweets @ShouvikNYC about technology, digital publishing, and all the madness of the startup life. He is crazy enough to share his Manhattan apartment with a 170 lbs. Saint Bernard.

13 11 / 2013

Is Your Magazine Truly Digital? (Part 2)

Last week, I introduced some of the many challenges that continue to face publishers in the digital age and app ecosystem. As I concluded, the root of the problem is as follows:

In my opinion, the biggest problem in today’s magazine app economy is the lack of a sound engagement strategy. Publishers need a way to ensure that readers spend a lot of time with the content, and have reasons to return to the app everyday - even several times a day - like they do with their social networking apps. In the golden age of print media, engagement was a much simpler game. A physical magazine would lie on the coffee table, next to some other magazines, and the reader would engage himself with one of these few competing titles for hours on end. The notion of having to check if some new pages had magically appeared in one or several of these magazines would have, of course, seemed farcical. But reading patterns and attention spans are dramatically different today: with smartphones and tablets, the digital magazine resides next to hundred of other apps on the device, competing for user’s time not only with other mag apps, but everything from social networking to games to text and email.

So, what to do?

Unbundle! Publish content in smaller quantities, but much more frequently. It’s conventional to publish at regular intervals for print because of the medium’s own challenges - printing costs, production and distribution timeframes. etc. But for digital, the app lives right on the tablet of the reader. It is always accessible, and super dynamic: new content can be delivered instantaneously, with no extra production costs. Imagine if there were no print history to the publishing industry, and magazines were being designed deliberately for digital. The idea of publishing just one issue per month probably wouldn’t even occur to you.

Promote to current users! Once your content is published to your app, let everyone know about it. MAZ offers “On the Fly Push Notifications” with which you can send push notifications to all your readers who have the app installed on their device. These swiftly alert them to what’s new and interesting in the app, an easy and effective way to drive engagement.

Promote to future users! Be active on social media, and keep talking about your latest issues via your social channels, be it about an article from the issue, about a reader’s response to a particular story, or whatever it may be. But make sure that whatever you add is interesting and shareable!

Consolidate and emphasize your brand! The app needs to engage the reader with the magazine brand in total, not just the app. As your readers love your brand, the app should feel like a consortium for all the mediums your brand uses, be it your website, your Twitter feed, your YouTube channel, or your Pinterest board. MAZ’s Store is a leap forward in this direction: readers can experience the magazine’s entire brand, not just the app, whenever they open it. It’s a centralized way for the reader to stay abreast of all that’s happening in and around your brand.

Better yet, with our “Featured Web Content,” you can specifically promote a particular social channel right on your app’s Store. Feature Web Content comes up as a draggable window that opens automatically when the Store is launched. Let’s say, on a given day, your Twitter feed is your most popular social medium; with this feature you can hit a switch and change your Featured Web Content to your Twitter feed, so more people can partake in all the activity. On another day, you can point it to your website instead, where a new blog post has been garnering tons of pageviews.

Be dynamic! Keep updating your links, videos, and galleries on the fly, and keep your coverage current, so your readers can enjoy a sense of freshness every time they visit the app (even within the same issue). Apps, unlike print, don’t have to be static. You would never return to a website that seldom updated, would you?

Get your readers to promote for you! Today’s readers enjoy contributing to your social ecosystem, and using content of yours to contribute to their own. Our critically acclaimed “Clippings” feature (which Mashable immediately praised upon release, and our client Forbes more recently called “really cool shit!”), so that users can easily “cut out” what they like with a simple two-finger gesture, and broadcast it to the world.

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As Paul says in his interview with BillionSuccess “I want to take Clippings even further by understanding why and how people share while reading online.” More and more, social is part of our world, and whether we like it or not, we must embrace it, in apps and everywhere.

Doing even just some of the above can make a magazine truly digital, and reverse the declining trend currently seen in the publishing business. Publisher needs to have an engagement strategy that fully exploits the unique advantages of being digital. MAZ’s platform makes all of the above as simple as can be — and a fresh stock of major updates on the way, we’re about to make it even simpler.

Shikha Arora is CTO and one of the founders of MAZ. She previously spent six years working as an engineer at Adobe Systems, architecting key facets of the popular InDesign software. She lives in Noida, India, and oversees operations at the MAZ India offices.

08 11 / 2013

Is Your Magazine Truly Digital?

Everybody knows we’re living in a time of great change and challenge for the magazine business. 

On the one hand, the industry is seeing a lot of innovation in the digital age: countless new ideas, publishing solutions, formats and philosophies. Most large and mid-sized publishing houses now employ dedicated digital teams, producing and distributing content specifically for and to devices that were unprecedented just a few years ago.

On the other hand, print circulations are declining heavily, and despite the best efforts of both content creators and their marketing teams, the number of ad pages are dropping with them.

So it’s imperative that something changes — and it certainly isn’t the people who produce the magazine content, or those who sell the ads. They know their jobs well; they have been doing them for years. They may need a new toolset, but remain the best men and women for the task at hand nonetheless.

And the promise is still there — moreso than ever, in fact. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt points out, there is no doubt that “the potential audience for publishers will explode.” Tablet sales are booming, and will outsell PCs worldwide by the end of this year, according to IDC. By 2017, tablet users are projected to number 160.7 million, up from 128 million this year, reports eMarketer. It is estimated that by 2014, around 20.7 percent of the world’s population will own a tablet device.

This is to speak nothing of smartphones, which are faring even better around the globe than in the United States. For example, in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, smartphone penetration is much higher (above 80%) than that in the US (roughly 60%), and other Asian territories are catching up quickly. In some parts of these countries, people seem to have skipped the PC revolution completely, moving straight to smartphones and tablets without ever have used a PC.

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To recap: the devices are myriad, content creators and developers are putting their best feet forward, and longstanding readers still know and love the brand. So then why haven’t the numbers and profit margins of digital — the obvious and inevitable solution to print’s downward spiral — been too encouraging just yet?

In my opinion, the biggest problem in today’s magazine app economy is the lack of a sound engagement strategy. Publishers need a way to ensure that readers spend a lot of time with the content, and have reasons to return to the app everyday - even several times a day - like they do with their social networking apps. In the golden age of print media, engagement was a much simpler game. A physical magazine would lie on the coffee table, next to some other magazines, and the reader would engage himself with one of these few competing titles for hours on end. The notion of having to check if some new pages had magically appeared in one or several of these magazines would have, of course, seemed farcical. But reading patterns and attention spans are dramatically different today: with smartphones and tablets, the digital magazine resides next to hundred of other apps on the device, competing for user’s time not only with other mag apps, but everything from social networking to games to text and email.

So, what to do? Join me again this coming Wednesday for the full rundown!


Shikha Arora is CTO and one of the founders of MAZ. She previously spent six years working as an engineer at Adobe Systems, architecting key facets of the popular InDesign software. She lives in Noida, India, and oversees operations at the MAZ India offices.

15 10 / 2013

Re-Designing Hundreds of Apps for iOS 7

I remember the exact moment it hit me– we had gathered couches in the office to watch the WWDC Keynote like it was a movie, and as they unveiled the iOS 7 video segment, it became immediately clear: we were going to have to redesign everything.

Like many app designers that day, I was feeling incredibly inspired after that Keynote and immediately got right to work.

We had already been planning on a UI overhaul of the Store section of our apps, and so now I had a really good excuse to do exactly that.

The tricky part was (and always is) that the app I was designing was actually a template for hundreds of apps that use MAZ to publish onto iOS, and so while I wanted to be on the bleeding edge design-wise, it still had to be vanilla enough to look good with all the types of content we help publish.

I’ll give away the ending of the story here, but these are our new iOS 7 designs for iPad and iPhone:

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Here is a journey through the process:

iOS 5

Version 2.6 of the MAZ Publishing platform marked the last major update of our apps’ UI, which was back in February of 2012. We launched v2.6 with the premier of Inc. Magazine for iPad. This marked an important transition as we added a web button and a Twitter button in the Store section of our apps, allowing users to visit websites in the Store. Prior to that users could only purchase/download content to view it - this was the first move toward offering free web-based content inside the apps as well.

(look at the RSS and Twitter icons toward the top right)

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iOS 6

A year and a half later, we released MAZ Publishing 3.6, which looked like this:

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Same general concept but with some tweaks. There had actually been five updates to our apps between v2.6 and v3.6, culminating in this modern and polished UI, but one clearly built for iOS 6.

Concepts for a New Storefront

Soon after v3.0, which was April 2013, well before iOS 7 was announced, I was already working on some concepts for a brand new Store UI.

My basic goals were to:
- give a fresh new look to the apps
- emphasize new content
- give even more access to web content
- not stray too far from our current layout so we wouldn’t need to re-process all the assets on our servers
- make Clippings more prominent (trivia: Clippings was introduced in MAZ Publishing 2.8)

My first design was one which in retrospect is actually pretty iOS 7-y with it’s bright colors and white background, even though I didn’t know about iOS 7 yet!

I took our “full cover view” and made it the default view, instead of “grid view” which had always been our default previously, so that the newest cover would be the main event when a user launched the app, instead of many small thumbnails with none weighted over the others.

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I added a Clippings Button to the right of the cover so that a user could very easily create a clipping of the cover.

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I also introduced more social buttons so that the user could load any of that web-based content right inside the Store. I borrowed from our iPhone UI which had a sliding drawer and applied it to iPad.

This was the birth of the “hub” idea which is now a cornerstone of MAZ Publishing - basically that a publisher’s app should be much more than the converted print product - it should be a one-stop-shop for all content, including web, social, etc.

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I killed content descriptions since the content was big enough to be legible (as opposed to the thumbnails), and most descriptions were redundant with what was already designed into the cover.

Another thing I brought to the new Store was the draggable overlay that we were already using within our content Reader, instead of a full-page web view inside a UITableView as we had previously done for web content accessed through the Store.

Now when a user tapped on one of those buttons along the left, the site would open in a draggable overlay like this:

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Initial Concepts for iOS 7

The very day of the WWDC Keynote, after catching a glimpse of iOS 7, I got to work on updating my designs. Ironically, I didn’t really think I had that much to do.

First, I changed the fonts and toned down the gradients of the buttons. Then I changed the drawer background color to light grey to make the whole thing feel airier.

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I thought I was done!

Of course, a lot of my initial impressions of iOS 7 were incorrect - my buttons were wrong, there should be no separation between nav bar and status bar, and as it turned out, going lighter was the wrong move…

Seeing is Believing

Even though I was still tweaking buttons, colors, and fonts, the new Store UI was actually already well underway with our dev team at the time of the WWDC announcements.

Soon enough, I had a live build to run on my iPad. I thought it was going to blow me away (after all, it was my own design come to life, how could I not love it?), but the truth is, I didn’t really like it as much as I thought I would.

It didn’t really make sense– I had really seen it a million times as I worked on it, had previewed it on the actual devices (Skala Preview is the greatest invention in the world) and simulated interaction (I use Keynote for all my prototypes and even most of my final design work - builds/transitions = fast prototyping), but using the actual real app is just different. And it wasn’t good enough.

Not to mention, my initial attempts at updating to match iOS 7 weren’t actually right. Once I had time to read through the new iOS Human Interface Guidelines and actually use iOS 7 firsthand, I realized that there was a lot more work to be done.

Buttons Without Buttons

For the purchase/preview/download buttons, I toyed with various arrangements, but came to find that the new iOS 7 button-less button (i.e. only text) would work well. I made the colors of the text to match the colors our users were accustomed to. Green to buy, blue to read, and so on.

I also used the fact that we were dealing with pure text to add some more descriptive language to the buttons.

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I couldn’t really do all the buttons as text-only because they would all be competing for attention. So for the subscription buttons, I added a simple thin border, and slightly emphasized free trials with a lighter blue.

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Back to Black

Okay, well not black, but dark blue. One problem when I was using the live build of the new Store was that the covers were being drowned out by the pure whiteness of the background. Sort of like in the new Photos app for iOS 7, your eyes don’t know where to focus when the pics are against the white, and really pop against the black (especially when using a black device where the black screen/black hardware border is ambiguous).

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Here is a version of the UI that is very close to the final version, in light grey and in dark blue.

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See how much more the cover pops out on to the dark background? Our v3.6 design for iOS 6 had a subtle dark blue gradient, and so I decided to backtrack to that palette, but without a gradient.

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I removed all the drop shadows, even on iPhone behind the drawer. We also added some gesture based navigation, like swiping back to the Store from the Reader instead of needing to tap the back button.

For the navigation bar icons, I made some modifications to our buttons to make them a bit larger, more geometric - I made them solid white with no drop shadows, and generally made them look cleaner.

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Similarly, for the interactive buttons inside the content, we flattened all of them and made them feel lighter.

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Here are a bunch of other side-by-side comparisons between our iOS 6 iPhone design and iOS 7 (two different apps but you get the idea).

So that’s the story! It was a long process, but I believe we landed on the right final product. Submitting those hundreds of app updates was no fun, but that is a story for another post another time…

To send you off, here is a classy animated GIF of the various iterations of our iOS 7 design. I recommend listening to a Justin Bieber song while you watch.

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Paul Canetti is one of the founders and CEO as well as lead UX/UI designer at MAZ. He tweets about publishing, design, and media at @paulcanetti and teaches at General Assembly in physical reality.

17 7 / 2013

2.8.5 App Release Update

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Earlier this summer, the 2.8 version of our apps went live on the iTunes App Store. This update featured our brand new Clippings functionality. Clippings is a fun way for readers to share content with one tap. Our initial release included the ability to share Clippings via Facebook, Twitter and Email. With 2.8.5 we are happy to announce that we’ve extended this functionality to Pinterest as well.

Clippings and Pinterest are really a match made in heaven. Pinterest has quickly become one of the fastest growing social networks in the world. Now with just a tap of your thumb and pointer finger on the iPad screen, MAZ apps allow users to perfectly capture that new must-have gadget or beautiful cocktail dress from the pages of their favorite magazine, straight to their pinboards.

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We’ve worked very hard to make the experience of pinning Clippings from MAZ apps to Pinterest completely seamless. It is truly nostalgic of what we loved about print editions, sitting around with our trusty scissors and cutting out all the things that inspired us about the world. We hope you are excited as we are about the beginnings of Clippings and where we intend to take it in the future.