is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
For most of last month my family and I went to France where we visited family and relaxed (hence the lack of posts here; sorry!). Mostly I stayed off the grid, but I kept in touch with what was happening back here in the States via Nuzzel, a great news app and web site. Once you sign into the service and auth one or more of your social networks, Nuzzel monitors activity among your friends. Whenever a specific news story or link is shared by more than a few of the people you follow (or, if you like, the people that they follow), you get a push notification. It’s a surprisingly effective method of staying abreast of current events.
I’ve been using Nuzzel for at least a year and a half and have always liked it, but on this trip I basically came to the conclusion that it’s the best mobile news experience out there, bar none. I read a lot of news with it while I was away, and it let me feel up-to-date without having to monitor a host of different news sites myself. Nuzzel’s model of capturing the fleeting zeitgeist of any given moment via your social graph is so complementary to the mobile experience that, for me, it’s come to represent the only mobile news experience that really makes sense, and it’s almost certainly the news app I would choose if I had to abandon all but one.
Nuzzel works best as simply a push notification service that takes you to the specific story that is currently making waves; tap on the notification and you go directly to the story. It lets you completely bypass the source’s home page, and even the Nuzzel app experience. And because its data corpus is the cohort of people that you follow and who presumably share your interests, it’s amazingly precise and relevant. It’s that old idea of a news source that’s tailored exactly for you, except it works really, really well.
Of course, Nuzzel isn’t perfect. Though you can get the vast majority of its value just from notifications, if you want to find past stories you’ve read, or you want to look ahead and find new stories on the bubble, or if you want to fine tune your settings, or anything beyond just using its notifications, then you’re thrown into the Nuzzel app experience which, unfortunately, is both pretty inelegant and confounding. The app is aesthetically lacking, difficult to navigate and would win no design awards. But it’s an example of the kind of thing that works in product design: its central insight, that a social filter is a great way to curate the news, is so powerful and compelling that its design hardly matters.
There’s one more way that Nuzzel is far from perfect: it apparently has no means of generating income. That may be coming soon, but throughout the many months that I’ve used it, I haven’t seen any ads or been offered any premium upgrades. There have been many, many attempts at building interesting news apps on mobile and almost all of them have run aground when it came to the question of becoming viable businesses. While Nuzzel is in my view far and away the best of them, it seems just as vulnerable as its predecessors did to the difficulty of monetizing the news. Sadly, product excellence is only minimally helpful when it comes to solving that particular riddle.+