App-titude for Apps

Radhika Nayak and Chris Sanborn at an NYU Center for Publishing moderated conversation

How do you produce a successful app? And what is a successful app, anyway? These were some of the questions asked recently at the moderated conversation on “The Art of the App” sponsored by students and alumni of the NYU-SCPS Center for Publishing. The event featured Radhika Nayak, Vice President for Product at Simon & Schuster, and Chris Sanborn, Founder and President of Sanborn Media Factory, a 30-person interactive agency that produces digital campaigns and products for companies such as Condé Nast and Hearst. Both panelists were asked to give the publishing industry a grade in terms of their app creation to date. Nayak, who has deep experience in building user-centered product strategies for websites and mobile applications, gave book publishing “about a C,” saying that publishers seem to be stuck on the idea of long-form content, and that they think of apps as nothing more than marketing tools for books, which is not what an app really is. 

Apps produced by magazine publishers were not quite so lucky, receiving “a solid F” from Sanborn, who said that the industry hasn’t done a good job of learning from its mistakes, but rather just keeps on enthusiastically plowing forward, full steam ahead. Nayak reinforced this view, explaining that magazine publishers do not practice “re-conceptualizing” the concept. “The apps are basically just going through the magazine,” she said, meaning that simply using a PDF of the print version is still very much alive.

Both panelists stressed how vital simplicity is when creating apps. Nayak advised that a good strategy is to embrace that old adage, “get dressed to go out, and then take something off,” so your app doesn’t end up too complex.

Sanborn stressed that the app must offer something unique. “You want the app to be like the DVD that comes with the book,” he said. He noted that it should offer new content, not everything in the book, and be designed to be used in tandem with the print edition.

Based on advice from the experts, here is “The Art of the App” in a New York Minute:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it alive—update, update, update!!!
  • Remember that the app stands alone. (An app must complement the parent product while offering something new.)
  • Consider your user and make sure your app is easy and functional
Students and alumni brainstorming app ideas

The event concluded with a spirited contest to create the best new app for a fictional multimedia food and entertainment brand called O’Sanborn’s. (Think Stews and Brews cookbook, Irish lifestyle magazine, TV show, and Irish family cooking restaurant franchise!) Attendees worked together in teams, and then presented their best app idea to the group at large.

M.S. in Publishing Student Emma Albright discusses her group’s app idea. She says the green top was not intentional.

The lucky winners came up with an idea for an app that would pair beer and Irish food. Users would select whichever is on hand in the fridge, and the app would offer pairing suggestions. This “Luck O’ the Irish Beer & Food Pairing” app would be free, but a premium version including recipes would be available for $2.99.

The runner-up app idea was a “One-A-Day Irish Fact” app. The panelists liked that it would keep users returning day after day to see the new content, and also that the facts could be tweaked to be actionable. (Users could pass on the facts or click the links to learn more, etc.)

“Simplicity really took the day,” said Sanborn, reinforcing the idea that it’s simple apps that take off with users. As the fictional tycoon of a fictional brand, he was delighted with the potential pot o’ gold his apps might yield.

The event was hosted by the NYU-SCPS Publishing Alumni Committee and Publishing Students Association, and the NYU-SCPS Office of Alumni Affairs. The Publishing Alumni Committee will be organizing a Speed Networking event in the spring, so gather up those business cards now!

by Liz Peterson

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