Quartz, the so-called future of news apps, is typing. And typing. And typing.
Like a hyperventilating tweenager venting through an interminable iMessage screed, Quartz is sending me a flurry of one sentence messages, emoji, and animated GIFs, desperately trying to engage me in a conversation about Twitter's earnings report, or the global diamond industry, or Kanye West's new album. And I do not care. I do not care. I do not care. Because I am a grown-up with a job, and the future of news apps seems to be for young people with nothing to do but answers texts. All. Day. Long.
Yesterday, Quartz—the digital-only business publication with a penchant for bold, progressive design moves—unveiled its first news app, also called Quartz. It's a news-talking chatbot wrapped up in a mock iMessage window within the app, an experiment in using a conversational UI to deliver news updates.
Here's how it works: Quartz sends you messages about new stories throughout the day that look a lot like text messages; you engage with them, or don't engage, by replying with pre-canned texts and emoji within the app. There are bells and whistles you can opt in and out of, like a end-of-day haiku at the closing bell, and you can toggle the frequency of alerts the app sends you. The idea, Quartz says, is to "put aside existing notions about news apps" and imagine what journalism would look like if it lived natively on your iPhone.
So what does iPhone-native journalism look like? Imagine if someone doused Brian Williams in a vat of stem cell goo, de-aging him to a teenager. Let's call him BrianQZ, the Jean Ralphio of news. He then somehow gets your number, and keeps sending you cold-open texts throughout the day. "This is what a Donald Trump presidency would look like," he says, squirting a close-up of the fluorescently-coiffed GOP front runner into your chat window. You select the pre-determined response, "Anything else?," but he doesn't pick up on the undercurrent of your text. Instead, he tries again. "Forget stocks and bonds—buy Kanye West sneakers instead!"
And on, and on. BrianQZ is always typing. Always pestering. Always prodding. Is this what it's like when women give their number to the wrong dude? Because oh my god, that's how Quartz's news app makes me feel. It feels creepy. How creepy? Let me put it this way. Ever gotten a message from someone, started typing a response, thought better of it, then deleted it, only to get an accusatory "I know you read that. I saw you typing" message a few minutes later? Quartz even has its own version of that. Anytime you open the app, a message immediately pops up. "Great to see you back." Aieeee! How are you even seeing me? Please don't peel off my face, Quartz!
At this point, I feel I need to make it clear that as a brand, I love Quartz. And I do admire the chutzpah of this news app. It's a unique experiment that tries to establish a whole new paradigm of what getting your news on a mobile device should look like. Quartz is hardly the only publication trying to figure out how to deliver the news to mobile readers. For example, there's NYT Now, Yahoo News Digest, and even Apple News. All of these apps are trying to solve similar problems, calibrating how frequently their users want updates—and in what form.
BrianQZ is an attempt to solve the problems of an emerging genre of UX known as "conversational interfaces," where designers adopt the metaphor of a text message or Gchat conversation to communicate with a user. In this case, it feels like a rare misstep for Quartz; the affordance of the text message is more a liability than an asset. It's slow, it's annoying, and it feels creepy compared to those other, more traditional apps.
But there's a generational divide at play here, too.
Recently, I read this great piece by BuzzFeed's Ben Rosen, in which he interviewed his 13-year-old niece about Snapchat. Here's a quote that really stuck with me:
ME: How often are you on Snapchat?
BROOKE: On a day without school? There’s not a time when I’m not on it. I do it while I watch Netflix, I do it at dinner, and I do it when people around me are being awkward. That app is my life.
Not is it just Snapchat: Brooke then goes onto say she has 700 unanswered text messages from the last 24 hours alone.
It seems this is what Quartz and other companies exploring chatbots and conversational interfaces are trying to tap into: the idea of an app that a user would describe with the words "there's not a time when I'm not on it." But for me, a 36-year-old grown-up with a wife, a mortgage, a full-time job, and a relatively sturdy attention span, I just marvel at the Quartz app's inefficiency. While it is possible to limit the app's notifications, efficiency is where the app's core problem emerges. If you're actually serious about reading news (as I am, and I'm guessing you are), waiting for Quartz to squirt a story at you one fake text message at a time feels preposterously slow compared to scrolling and swiping. It's a total imposition of your time.
Quartz's news app may be a bold experiment in conversational interfaces, but it's one designed for people who think that the most exciting thing in the world is that little ellipsis bubble at the bottom of the iMessage window, people who live in delirious anticipation of the next time their iPhone buzzes in their hand. If that's you, you can download it here. But my guess, actually, is even these people will eventually uninstall the Quartz app. Because the risk of treating news like text messages from a friend is that friendship in the digital age is notoriously fickle. It's easy to annoy someone from behind a screen without realizing it—and when that happens? It's all too easy to tap block.