App Development Lessons from TweetMag's Geoff Teehan
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App Development Lessons from TweetMag’s Geoff Teehan

A few weeks ago, Twitter celebrated its fifth birthday. Back in 2006, no one—not even the creators—could have imagined how the micro-blogging site would blow up in popularity nor how it would evolve. Twitter users have seen its usefulness as a channel for news distribution, but also that it can become cluttered with people’s random thoughts and documentation of lunches. Enter TweetMag, an iPad application from Toronto design firm Teehan + Lax that aims to reduces the noise on Twitter by aggregating links into a personalized newspaper.
TweetMag aims to do one thing really, really well: pulling the content from your Twitter feed and making it easier to consume. Articles show up in a newspaper-style format with previews of the text, and newspapers can be made from your own feed, lists, and search terms. TweetMag acts as an alternative to opening tabs in a browser and presents content in a cleaner, clearer manner to help people who use Twitter to gather news skim more of what’s shared. “Twitter has an endless amount of content and finding it is still a challenge,” says T+L co-founder Geoff Teehan, who himself moved away from RSS feeds to “news curation” from people he followed on Twitter. “TweetMag is about focusing on the content.”

While Teehan + Lax had previously worked on “all things digital,” as Teehan puts it, Tweetmag’s launch in December marked a branching out for the agency. T+L primarily does work for companies like Air Miles and Bell, and Tweetmag was its first for-profit product not for a client. Like most firsts, the process resulted in some successes and some lessons learned—we sat down with Teehan in the agency’s Liberty Village office for a post-mortem.

Photo of Geoff Teehan at the T+L office by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.

TweetMag came out of a brainstorming session at T+L in spring of 2010. The agency had been itching to do something for itself and there was also the opportunity to diversify revenue sources, says Teehan. Creating an application for the just-released iPad that gave users a better experience in Twitter appeared to be a winning combination: “The iPad was relatively new and a good consumption device, and we had experience developing in [programming language] Objective-C,” says Teehan. In early summer the company teased TweetMag on its blog, saying the goal was “to build a product people will want to buy in 60 days.”
Two months came and went and TweetMag wasn’t ready. Projects often get more complicated than expected, and, in this case, there was difficulty in co-ordinating how Twitter would allow the application to access and use its data (called an API), says Teehan. In addition, the first version of the iPad had some issues with memory that made TweetMag run slowly.
Even worse, during the development time for TweetMag, competitors began to crop up, including a splashy application called Flipboard that was so popular upon launching in July 2010 its servers went down. “We hoped to be first to market and we weren’t. It was always a risk. We knew the idea was really good, but we were sure other people had the same idea and were working on the same problem,” says Teehan.
While the two products aren’t identical—Flipboard acts more as a social networking hub, aggregating from many sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—its release meant the firm had to seriously consider the fate of its product: “We were disappointed and had some conversations over whether to continue or not, especially since Flipboard was a free product.” (TweetMag currently costs $4.99.) In the end, T+L felt there was enough in TweetMag to differentiate it from Flipboard and the finished app was in the Apple App Store by December.
TweetMag arrived with some buzz as a potential “Flipboard-killer” and was praised for its smart design and look, but the first version wasn’t as polished as it needed to be. “It was definitely buggy and definitely slow,” acknowledges Teehan. An update was released in March to fix those issues.
There’s an ethos in the tech industry to release products as soon as possible and then to improve upon them in updates. The corollary to that strategy, however, is that the expectations at any given point mustn’t outpace the product. (Apple, for all its savvy, still hasn’t been able to stop Macheads from predicting wild additions to its new products and then getting sorely disappointed when none appear.) In light of the mixed reviews for the initial release, Teehan feels the promotion could have been pulled back from TweetMag: “We teased at it and we’d probably keep our mouths shut the next time around. We’d probably just keep it under wraps and try to do a bigger release all at once, rather than tease it. By teasing it and trying to get lots of people right away, they probably didn’t get the best experience.”
Looking ahead, T+L will continue to tweak and improve TweetMag. Teehan was most excited about the inclusion of Readability, a feature that allows users to pay content producers—from the mommy blogger in her house to writers at the Atlantic —based on their reading preferences. “Traditional display ads are dead. How do we compensate publishers for the work they do without hammering the user with advertising? Readability is an interesting model for payment that isn’t putting content inside a big box,” he says. (Teehan says none of that money would go to T+L, but “it does right by publishers.”)
Only time (and data) will tell if TweetMag users opt-in to the feature or not, but the success or failure of Readability could say a lot about our relationship with online content. Even if we’re hesitant to pay for an article, are we more likely to pay for a nice way to read it?