Material: Social News Personalization

The personalization of news is a nice idea. It should strip out unrequired stories, leaving behind only those pieces of writing that excite, educate or entertain — AppStorm posts, for instance.

But in my experience, most tailored news apps tend to be a bit…meh. They certainly filter, but rarely with the desired result. Some try to sort stories by keyword — always an inaccurate, spam-ridden approach — while others simply provide broad brushstroke subjects, gathering plenty of content you would otherwise avoid.

So, I’m interested to see how Material, an app which claims to deliver news that is tailored to each user, copes with this challenge. The product of an accomplished developer (Inq), Material has recently been updated with a sleek new design and a batch of new features; critically, though, can it deliver a great mix of content?

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Building

The only data Material requires is derived from the two big social networks. By linking your Facebook and Twitter accounts, you give the app an insight into the people and publishers you follow, and the subjects they talk about — in basic terms, the stuff that really interests you.

Material learns your taste by analysing your social activity.

Material learns your tastes by analyzing your social activity.

This information is then used to build the first edition of your personal magazine. This takes a couple of minutes, but Material sends out a notification when this work is done, an action that is repeated with the preparation of every edition.

You'll have to wait a minute before receiving your first edition, but Material notifies you of its arrival.

You’ll have to wait a minute before receiving your first edition, but Material notifies you of its arrival.

Content

Editions — which come in morning and afternoon versions — are split into subjects chosen for their prominence in your social activity. You navigate through them by sideswiping, and scrolling down provides the latest stories within each topic.

The default method of navigation is to swipe sideways through the brightly coloured topic headers.

The default method of navigation is to swipe sideways through the brightly coloured topic headers.

Frustratingly, the order in which subjects appear is fixed, but you can at least access all of the topics in your edition via the main menu. Here, you can add and remove content manually, too.

You can add and remove topics manually, but you can't change their order.

You can add and remove topics manually, but you can’t change their order.

The content itself can only be judged on a personal level, given that the aim is to suit incoming news to the individual. In my case, Material has a significant vault of social data to call on, but the content offered is a mixed bag. The broad topics that interest me are all present — with a couple of random, erroneous additions — and therefore, by default, the stories within them are of interest. But I’m also served with some posts from sites I would never visit, and other posts which I wouldn’t ever read.

Perhaps my niche tastes (cricket, etc.) make personalization a more difficult process than it would be for the average user. However, Material’s reliance on social networks seems like a very imprecise source of preferred reading matter.

Browsing

It’s a good job, then, that browsing is such a pleasant experience. Stories arrive in a grid of brightly coloured Windows Phone-like tiles, and each article is dominated by a featured image, making for a visually impactful interface.

Material's interface is definitely pretty.

Material’s interface is definitely pretty.

As you tap to read a post, Material extracts the text of the article (where possible), Readability-style, although the web view it provides is also neat, and it includes on-screen zoom buttons for quick-time access to a better view.

Reading is also a pleasant experience.

Reading is also a pleasant experience.

Via the menu bar at the top of each article you can toggle between text and web, flick to the previous or next article in the current subject, share the article you’re reading and open the post in your browser of choice.

Verdict

In many areas, Material suffers from the afflictions I mentioned in my introduction. Whilst the content it offers does include stories of interest that I might not otherwise have seen, there’s also plenty included that I wouldn’t want to see.

Not that it’s all bad, by any means. The design is clean and effective, and if you add your content manually, you can achieve an edition which is far more narrowly in line with your taste. Here’s hoping, though, that future updates will refine the recommendation engine, and make it far more reliably accurate at providing the right content without your input.

In the meantime, Material‘s imperfect content suggestions will remain as the sole (if very important) area of weakness in an otherwise nicely made app.


Summary

Imperfect news personalization in an otherwise nicely constructed app.

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