Joey Marburger on the Washington Post’s new Politics App

Last week, The Washington Post launched an iPad app that aggregates all of the Post’s political content into a one-stop-politics-shop, good for your average reader and for the most voracious political junkie. But this app is much more than an aggregator. There are videos, maps, visual representations of the candidates positions and how they’ve shifted over time, fact checked statement databases, and historical data for every presidential election in U.S. history.
WaPo iPad app home screen
To get a look into the process of building such a mega-app, I talked to Joey Marburger, a digital designer at the Post.

Ok, first of all, how do you even begin to organize all of the content categorized “politics” at the Washington Post? From blogs, to fact checks, to opinions, to daily campaign reports, not to mention the incredible amount of photo and video, and all of the historic information, just thrown in for good measure, where do you start?

When we started exploring the idea of an iPad politics app we asked ourselves, “What if the entire app was a graphic?” We stuck with that the entire way. That is what made the organization much more fluid. Developers, editors, reporters, you name it were brought in from the start. If someone wasn’t on board we didn’t make them feel disconnected. We empowered them. We asked questions and moved forward. Once we all had the same vision for the app, we started. Why most major media apps look and feel the same are because they are produced by committee. We started with a dream and made sure everyone believed it. Then we got to work. It wasn’t easy but because we knew what we were striving for things came together better than any app on which I’ve worked.

WaPo iPad app

A portion of the app is devoted to the candidate's positions on issues and how those have changed over time.

How many people were on the core app building team and what were their roles?

We worked with Bottle Rocket to help us with design and development. They were great. We pushed each other every day. There were so many people that worked on this app on both sides it would be tough to name everyone. But here are the people that make it work:

Ken Dodelin, Director of mobile product management (who, I must mention, welcomed a newborn baby boy on Feb. 25 two days before app launch)
Julia Beizer, Mobile projects editor (She championed this app and is currently on maternity leave with a newborn baby girl.)
Al Funk, Mobile software director (Coordinated all of our developers and tech personnel, including lead David Young, to make this app actually function.)
David Young, Lead software developer (Built the feeds used in the apps and helped coordinate the major development efforts)
Terri Rupar (In charge of the digital production and editing of the app and helped take over for Julia Beizer. Terri is the full-time editor of the app. She makes it happen daily.)
Tim Wong, Editorial mobile designer (We hired Tim from the Washington Business Journal for his stunning visual presentation. He designs the main content panels that are so visually stunning.)

There are so many that helped. I had a tremendous amount of assistance from Sarah Sampsel, digital design director and David Griffin, visuals editor. Also, our executive editor Marcus Brauchli believed in our vision and empowered not only me but the team to push this forward.

How long did the process take from concept to launch?

This is the fastest app we’ve produced. From, “let’s do a politics app” to launch was about six to seven months. We plan to release multiple updates with new features, bug fixes and other enhancements throughout the election season. A new version will be available next week which we started working on before the initial launch. By having a tiered update release plan we were able to get the initial app out more quickly.

The app is very visual. With interactive maps, big photos, and candidates positions shown visually over time, design is definitely at the forefront. What was the basic design process like?

We started with sketches then moved to an overall UX and UI strategy with wireframes. Once we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do Bottle Rocket produced the initial designs. We went through several iterations with a lot of help from my bosses Sarah Sampsel and David Griffin. David really helped with the fine details of the design right before launch.

What are you most proud of about the app?

WaPo iPad app

Historic election results are available for every U.S. election.

Presenting content in a new way. We showed that newspapers can find innovative ways to deliver content. We didn’t want to build a standard news app. By placing design at the forefront of our content strategy we made better decisions about what went where. And users are responding to that. When a user is happy, I’m happy.

What advice would you give people who want to make apps like this, but don’t really have the resources? Where should they start?

Think simple. Start small. That’s what I always say when we start. Apps have a tendency to balloon which usually leads to disorienting UX. Focus on completing simple tasks and always fight for the user. Think about one specific goal you want to accomplish and find the leanest way to do it.

We went the native app route but I would say people should explore HTML5 web apps. Much easier to build and a lower resource investment. Also, the market can be much bigger when you include other tablets. There are tons of tools out there to help people build apps without knowing Objective-C or other native coding languages. I’d start with those and keep learning. The best way to start is by diving in head first.

You can download the app from the iTunes store.

Read our other Year-Long Conversation dispatches here.

Larry Buchanan is a designer, columnist living in Bloomington, IN. See more of his work here.