Metro devices
Credit: Image courtesy of Metro
Metro's iPad app has been downloaded more than a million times since its launch three years ago, and won Newspaper App of the Year Award in 2012.

Speaking at the Digital Publishing Summit in London, James Cadman, head of tablet editions at Metro, shared some of the lessons he had learned while working on the app.

1 Identify your objectives

Apps are expensive to produce, so before launch it is important to consider what audience you aim to target and how it will serve that audience

"There's no point just having an app... just for having the sake of having an app," said Cadman. "It needs to serve a function."

2 Consider using an 'off-the-shelf' app supplier

Metro didn't think it was feasible to develop their app internally, said Cadman, and so used an external supplier.

One of the benefits of using an off-the-shelf supplier, he said, is that "it's their job to come up with the latest innovations" in app publishing, which is likely to be "an easier and cheaper" solution than trying to build it in-house.

However, the downside of using an external supplier is they have their own "product roadmap" which might not match your own, and additional customisations can become expensive.

3 Test before you launch

Before launching its app, Metro had 50 people test it and tell them what they liked and what was less appealing.

This allowed them to fix the things that didn't work so well and "make a big fuss" of the things that did.

4 Apple is crucial

Cadman noted the importance of App Store optimisation, in terms of the way Apple lists its apps in Google, and ensuring you have a good profile to boost your apps "visibility".

Apple can also have a large impact on app downloads in other ways.

In December 2012, Apple made the Metro app an 'editor's choice' within the App Store.

As a result, on a "normal day" in December the app was getting a thousand downloads a day, said Cadman, and on Christmas Day – a time when many people received iPads as gifts – it was downloaded 12,000 times.

5 Think beyond the original source material

Though Cadman said that the "starting point" for the app is Metro's print edition, the outlet has found new ways to expand and enhance the content to offer extra value to its users.

"Our view is there's no point just being a PDF reader, we want to take advantage of the things you can do on a digital device," he said.

As well as the multimedia element of video embeds, the app also features a "live news feed" of new and updated content from Metro.co.uk.

Metro also introduced an evening edition for its app, which is published on weekdays at 5pm because the outlet identified that as a peak time for visits from tablet.

"Fifty per cent of our readers come back in the evening to read the evening edition, so there's clearly an appetite for that," said Cadman.

6 Keeping your customers happy

People are likely to check out the reviews of your app before they download it, so it is important to offer a good user experience to produce good reviews.

The Metro app has more than 10,000 reviews in the App Store and an average rating of 4.5 stars. However, one frustration Cadman noted is that you are not able to reply to App Store comments if a user has an issue or technical problem.

To get around this, Metro have a dedicated email address for people who are having issues with the app to contact them directly.

Through offering good customer service, Metro hope that the next time a user is prompted to review the app, the review will be positive.

7 Expect to work unusual hours

The nature of 24-hour publishing means journalists often work antisocial hours. For Metro's app team, having to wait until the print edition pages were finalised before they could create the app meant their working hours were 6.30pm to 3am.

"It kind of killed your social life," said Cadman, explaining that good team morale was essential to working such unusual hours.

He added that when recruiting new members to the team it was very important to ensure they would know what to expect and not have a problem with those kind of shifts, otherwise it would be "poisonous for team morale".

However, he added that despite working through the night, the team enjoyed the novelty of working on a project that was something so new and different to what metro had offered previously.

8 The future is unwritten

Publishers need to build workflows into their apps to enable them to adapt to developments in app publishing, said Cadman.

He noted that with Google Play gaining more prominence, "it is no longer an Apple universe".

When Metro launched its app it was designed for only one screen size – iPad.

However, following the release of iPad Mini and numerous screen sizes for different iPhone models, not to mention the emergence of wearables such as smartwatches, there are now many more considerations when it comes to designing an app.

"You don't want to have a separate work stream to accommodate each different edvice that comes along," said Cadman.

"The days I think of designing for just a single screen will probably come to an end, I think. We're moving to a more responsive approach."

Cadman also noted opportunities with apps to offer increased personalisation for users, both in terms of content but also through newer technology such Beacons and geo-targeting.

One example of this is the NBC's Breaking News app, which uses geolocation to offer proximity alerts for breaking stories.

"With your tablet, you don't necessarily take it everywhere but with your phone you do," said Cadman.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).