Admittedly, I was skeptical.
There was this new iPhone app—a news app—called Watchup, and everybody seemed to like it before it really even existed. Backed by Microsoft Ventures, Stanford University, and the Knight Foundation, it had formed partnerships with media powerhouses such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Turner Broadcasting. It was a wunderkind app that had assumed some throne in the mobile media world before it even launched. The more organizations who jumped on the bandwagon, the less I wanted to as well.
But I tried Watchup after it launched for the iPhone yesterday. And I sort of get what all the fuss is about.
You download the app, choose what topics you’re interested in (politics, gaming, world news, etc), and let Watchup know when you’d like a customized news feed pushed to your phone each day. So far, the concept may sound a lot like AOL’s homepage or My Yahoo—one of those news personalization engines that were all the rage in the late '90s. Watchup pushes the idea further by allowing you to vote on stories you like and don't like, learning your preferences over time—almost like Pandora for news. Even still, I had thought this idea had faded away in light of the fact that most of us now get news via social feeds such as Twitter and Facebook.
So while I’m still not sold on the personalization end of Whatchup, its news feed is a piece of design brilliance.
On the top of the page, a video loads instantly. It might be from CNNMoney or IGN—that depends on the topics you’ve chosen to follow. Below the video is a text list of each story primed to load as a video.
If you don’t like the video that's currently playing, you swipe right on the video box to skip to the next one, or tap any story in the list to jump ahead. The next video loads swiftly, just like changing the channel on an old-school cable box.
But it also helps that Watchup doesn’t force you to actually watch that video to ingest its content. What do I mean? Well, if you swipe right on any article in your feed rather than the video box—say, on some headline about the average pay of CEOs—you’ll find yourself at a new page full of stories about CEO pay, sourced from different news sites from across the web (the results are pulled from Bing). This lets you dig deep on a topic or gather a consensus around a piece of news—all while that original video continues feeding through your speaker as audio. It’s a satisfying bit of multitasking, akin to reading the newspaper and watching TV at the same time.
"The inspiration came to me from the fact that many news videos come with a high level of immersive power (think about a video about Eastern Ukraine fighting)...but they often lack the context I need to go beyond the moving pictures and grasp the pros and cons of something, get additional perspectives," explains CEO and cofounder Adriano Farano. "We live in a democratic society where the press is free and we have to take full advantage of that. Our job is to make that discovery easy and the experience seamless."
There’s just one catch. With no preroll ads in Watchup videos, and an interface streamlined for hopping around content, I realize how wonderful watching video on my phone can be. But news content without ads isn’t sustainable, and Farano confirms that, indeed, Watchup will introduce preroll advertising in order to "support good journalism." I can’t argue with that mission, but I will say, from a UX perspective, the reason Watchup works is its speed, the idea that I can scratch every curiosity and bit of my own impatience with another tap.
And in this sense, Watchup’s user-centered design may be at odds with the reality of its business. I, for one, don’t click on CNN news stories that have a video icon by them, knowing I’ll be sucked into an ad that’s as long as the news itself. If Watchup had video ads, it’s hard to imagine that channel-surfing satisfaction staying intact. But then again, I was wrong about Watchup once already. Maybe I’ll be wrong again.
Watchup is available now for iOS devices and Android tablets.