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What does the addictive smartphone game Flappy Bird, recently rumoured to be returning to the App Store, have to do with mobile news?

Probably not much, you might think.

But speaking at the NICAR digital journalism conference last month, David Ho, editor of mobile, tablets and emerging technology at the Wall Street Journal, used the game as an analogy of how the news industry could approach mobile technology.

"Game makers have always been leaders when it comes to adopting new technology," Ho told Journalism.co.uk after the conference.

"They figure out how to engage people, how to delight people, plus they've figured out how to make money all at the same time.

When creating new news experiences, it's not a bad idea to look to games to see what they're doingDavid Ho, Wall Street Journal
"Unfortunately the news business does have this history of being slower to embrace new technology and new trends.

"So when creating new news experiences, it's not a bad idea to look to games to see what they're doing."

1. Time is of the essence

Mobile is "very much about people's time," said Ho. And the more engaging the experience, he explained, the more time people are likely to give to it.

"When you think about the Flappy Bird game, how much time did people put into this thing?" Ho asked. "[How much time] did they devote to flapping and tapping and cursing and doing it all again? It was a very engaging experience."

"Now imagine if we could make a new experience this engaging – that would be really something."

He also noted similarities in the "split" between smartphone games and console games, and the difference between news digests produced specifically for mobile – designed to be read quickly while people are on the move – and more immersive, long-form content.

Both, he said, demonstrated "a recognition of how people use the technology – where they use it, when they use it, and the amount of time they have [to spend]".

2. Forget the bells and whistles

Though Flappy Bird was wildly successful – at the end of January it was the most downloaded free game in the iOS App Store – its simple retrograde graphics would not look out of place in an 80s video game arcade.

For Ho, this demonstrates why function is more important than form when it comes to mobile.

"I think mobile experiences for news should be beautiful, but they don't have to be complicated," he said. "It's really more about working really well."

Key to this, he explained, was to make sure mobile platforms "serve a purpose, serve a function, serve people's needs" and most importantly "don't annoy people".

The most effective mobile platforms, he said, "connect to the experiences of core user behaviours" in terms of how, when and where people consume news on mobile.

"So if Flappy Bird could pull off something like that, simple as it was, you don't have to get too complicated with a mobile news experience either," he added.

3. Get physical

The smartphone touch-screen is central to the Flappy Bird game, with players repeatedly tapping the screen in order to keep a bird in flight, dodging obstacles along the way – an experience which is simple but very addictive.

"Mobile is very much about physical interaction," said Ho, adding that touch-screen interfaces, augmented layers and motion-responsive technologies are just some of the ways mobile technology has introduced new ways for users to interact with news.

To exploit this for a better user experience, he said, anyone producing content for mobile should consider ways to make it interactive, turning the traditional advice for storytellers from "show, don't tell" into "feel, don't show".

"For almost all of our lives, storytelling has been pretty much confined to some sort of two-dimensional surface, either a piece of paper or a flat screen," Ho explained.

"But now there's a whole host of new devices and things that allow you to interact with digital information in news ways. There's a depth to it, a third dimension, a physical interaction with technology."

"I think we're really just scratching the surface of how we can tell stories using all that technology."

4. Everybody is different

"Some people just don't get Flappy Bird at all," said Ho. "But none the less it was a big success."

Similarly, he explained, mobile is also very subjective in terms of device usage and the way people consume news, their likes and dislikes.

Ho used Flappy Bird as an example of why it is essential to understand your audience in order to consider new approaches, including ones you may not have thought of before.

"Understanding users and your content and how it all fits together, that's really important," he said.

"Just because something doesn't make sense to you personally, doesn't mean it doesn't work, so it's good to keep an open mind."

5. If at first you do not succeed...

Last but not least, the "flap, crash, flap, crash" nature of Flappy Bird demonstrated how the news industry should persevere and keep trying out new mobile experiences, despite the occasional fail, said Ho.

"We need to experiment, we need to rapidly, obsessively try new things, allow them to fail, hope that they don't, but then get on the horse and try again," he said.

"And each time you do it, you learn something from it and hopefully you can make it work in the end.

"Just like with Flappy Bird, when the "Game Over" sign pops up, really that's just the sign that you need to start trying all over again."

Listen to the a podcast on what gaming can teach journalists about digital storytelling

Flappy Bird
Credit: The slide David Ho presented at the NICAR digital journalism conference

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