When Quartz launched its website in 2012, the team behind it were adamant they didn't want to do a native app which simply replicated qz.com.

So when the time felt right to launch an app – in February this year – Quartz decided to take a different approach.

"We just knew that we wanted to do something different," Zach Seward, Quartz's senior vice-president of product and executive editor, told the ONA conference in Denver on 15 September.

"We thought that there was a lot more news organisations could be doing around locked screens and wanted to experiment there."

Instead of a list of headlines and stories, Quartz chose to deliver the news through a "conversational interface" (aka. a bot) which allows users to respond to messages and updates by tapping buttons and emojis that appear at the bottom of the screen.

In a crowded media landscape, creating a bot app was also a strategic move.

"We knew from day one the novelty value would help with getting word about the app," said Seward.

Quartz were not the first news organisation to launch a chat bot, though many more have since arrived in the App Store or on Facebook Messenger.

The Wall Street Journal and CNN launched Messenger bots in April, while BuzzFeed's BuzzBot launched in July (for a broader round-up of chat bots in news see this list on Journalism.co.uk).

However, getting bots to sound conversational in order to engage users – and keep them engaged – is no easy feat.

In its early stages, the app was "interesting in its interface" but "lacked soul, it lacked humanity", said Seward.

Ultimately, Quartz built a whole new team to manage the app, reframing news stories as a "back-and-forth", and creating the content that users see when they engage with it.

"Personality for us is everything," said Seward, adding that while the app aimed to get people up to speed with the latest global economy news, "it's very much also an entertainment experience".

How the Quartz app looks on iPhone and Apple Watch. Credit: Quartz

This "personality" was a key consideration throughout the building of the app – for example, making sure the touches and taps were what users would expect (number of taps is a metric Quartz records as a sign of real usage) – and, more importantly, in producing the content.

"In the end, it's nothing to have some bubbles go back and forth if the text inside them is lifeless and doesn't feel 'of a piece' with the interface, which is obviously mimicking text messaging," Seward explained.

As you might expect from a text message, there is liberal use of emojis, GIFs, and other images.

The personality also stays true to the format of Quartz's initial product – the Daily Brief newsletter – which, though informative, is unmistakably human.

So far, people are "responding well" to the app, and an Android version is in the works, said Seward.

In April, Quartz's director of marketing Mia Mabanta said active users opened the app twice a day and spent between four and five minutes with it.

And Seward is glad Quartz resisted the temptation to name its app after the code name for the project: Jasper.

"We were close to calling the app Jasper, and making out that you were talking to Jasper and not with Quartz.

"I am so glad we did not do that."

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