Blog Post

Balancing Acts Making Apps

"Around the holidays, a friend brought his six-year-old niece into an electronics store filled with blaring televisions. The little girl quickly ran up to a TV and started touching the images on the screen. She tried as hard as she could to get something to happen, moving her fingers lightly across the monitor's surface, until she finally gave up in frustration. This is just one example of how devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android, and tablet computers are changing the way we learn, interact, and communicate. Last week I joined Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab team and am excited to possibly help shape this new renaissance of learning and communication."

Those are introductory words from the Mobile Action Lab's newest member, Laura Pieroni. She's in a grad program at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, fresh from recent stints at California Academy of Sciences, Apple, and Focus Features. Laura's helping to coordinate the Lab's activities on all five apps we're developing, collaborating with young people on lots of market research, our social media strategy, and a mentor/speaker series for Lab participants (which we'll produce as video segments for wider distribution).

Laura's come on board at a pivotal moment, with the design/development process for three apps well underway, and as we gear up to showcase our work at the Digital Media and Learning 2011 conference, Designing Learning Futures.

Two of our core youth participants, Asha Richardson and Austin de Rubira, have been with the Lab since we got started last fall. Lately, they've been reflecting on our efforts so far. All of us have been struck by the various balancing acts involved in app-making with youth.

Stay Simple and Go Big

Asha, who's 19 and in college, remembers an early conversation with one of our advisors who created a super popular Facebook app.

"We were coming up with all sorts of complicated features for the app were creating with Forage Oakland. He got us back on track with a metaphor. Something along the lines of, 'Before you can have a sundae, you need a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, plain and simple. Start with the scoop of ice cream.' We've taken that advice to heart, and yet we also feel ourselves pulled in the opposite direction. In a recent meeting about a different app with another advisor--a tech company executive--he urged us to think BIGGER! We weren't doing enough, he said, to engage the maximum number of users. Here's the challenge: How do you stay simple but go big? How do you decide on the minimum requirements for an app, and still make it amazing? For me, simplistic complexity might seem like an oxymoron, but it's what we need to achieve."

Lower Barriers to Participation and Promote Excellence

Another tension we've faced developing an app that invites users to upload creative content is, how do you appeal to the greatest number of participants (newbies and experts), while cultivating excellent material? We know this is a fundamental question for anyone seeking to engage creative digital communities. One approach we're taking is to create mechanisms within the app that educate the community, in an irreverent way, on how to produce the best stuff. We've also had to find the right balance inside the Mobile Action Lab itself, as our work proceeds on two tracks: 1. Partnering with pro programmers to co-create five technologically ambitious apps for the iTunes and/or Android marketplaces and 2. Exposing young people with no programming background to the development process by facilitating their independent creation of simple apps, from start to finish. To pull off the latter, we're running workshops using Google App Inventor. Austin, who's 18 and a high school senior, participated in the first one.

"We used Google App Inventor to design some test apps to get more acquainted with the process of development. Our guru for this specific lab enlightened us on various approaches to app development. He mentioned that one of the more popular methods is the iterative development process, which is more or less a fancy way of saying trial and error. First you envision what you want a specific part of the app to do, then you attempt to add the aforementioned functionality, and then you make any adjustments you find necessary after testing it out. Putting this into practice making our etch-a-sketch and cootie-catcher apps proved quite interesting. Coming from a background in journalism, I have had ample practice with this process of creating and editing, and it was really fun to apply previous skills by monkeying around with the coding blocks. Reading through the coding blocks was like meticulously scanning a paragraph for errors and incompatibilities."

So true. While many of us are used to critiquing scripts, now we're editing product designs and user experiences (before they've even happened!). As we mentioned in our last post, youth-driven journalism continues to serve as a useful lens we're applying to our app development process.

Speaking of, we'll leave you with NYTimes Andrew DeVigal's recommendations for apps every journalist should have. Happy downloading!

More soon. 

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