BuzzFeed’s Jesse Shapins’ pro tips on creating stellar apps

Many moons ago, Jesse Shapins took the stage at the Fargo Theatre sporting a scribbly white blazer, red-rimmed glasses, and an explosion of hair from his chin. He shared with Myriad Mobile’s Midwest Mobile Summit on “how to make an app that doesn’t suck.”

Shapins is the Director of Product for BuzzFeed’s apps. Ever heard of BuzzFeed? They’re just that “social news and entertainment company” that gets billions of views a month, and has over 90 million monthly unique visitors.

tumblr_ni4ukm8Hoa1qzva25o1_400When it comes to working with mobile, Shapins knows his stuff. Before BuzzFeed, he was the CEO and co-founder of an app called GoPop, that allowed users to create their own automated GIFs. The app was so successful that it was acquired by BuzzFeed in February of this year, and Shapins and his team are now leading BuzzFeed’s app development.

On his personal bio, Shapins calls himself a “media entrepreneur,” stating that his artistic practice “focuses on mapping the imagination and perception of place between physical, virtual and social space.” His work in the mobile media field has been featured in Wired, The New York Times, Boing Boing and other venues.

He also states that he is “nostalgic for Moscow and Berlin int he 1920’s.” That explains the beard.

Jesse Shapin

In early summer, Shapins came for Myriad Mobile’s Midwest Mobile Summit to impart his app-ful wisdom on us. Here are six of his key tips about the nature of mobile, and how to make an app that doesn’t suck.

1. Mobile is tactile.

What was and is one of the most mind-blowing aspects of the smartphone and tablet? The ability to control with the touch of your finger. A good app, Shapins said, utilizes the tactility of the mobile interface. Let the user touch it, feel it, play with it.


An example he gave is the success of Tinder. The “swipe right, swipe left” idea was an instant hit. In typical BuzzFeed fashion, Shapins and his team recently released a “Tinder for pets” app called “Cute or not” – but instead of people, you swipe right or left on kittens and puppies and other pets (a move that Fast Company called “smart business”).

For a reminder of how cool touch screens are, just watch how excited people get when Steve Jobs first introduces the first multi-touch screen iPhone.

2. Mobile is personal.

Because it is so tactile, mobile is also very personal. “It’s an extension of who we are,” as Shapins said. Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, are something the majority of people interact with very closely on a regular basis.

I mean seriously, look around you right now. If your phone is not on you, it’s probably near you. We’re close with our phones. We’re tight. (Maybe that’s how this movie happened.)

What we have on our phone is therefore also highly personal. Our calendars, our photos, our apps. When thinking about apps to create, Shapins said knowing the personal nature these apps have is an important step.

3. Mobile is visual.

Mobile phones have cameras. This fact alone, Shapins said, has changed everything.

“Images are increasingly our method of communication,” he said.


Think of Snapchat – sending up to 10 second clips of pictures or video directly to friends. Many will send “snaps” more than texts, choosing to include a picture with words rather than just send words.

Shapins is well aware of the power of visual. At GoPop they called it the “visual conversation” app. “The future of language is visual,” Shapins said. The more visual your app is, the better.

4. Mobile is everywhere.

In June, Tech Crunch reported that there are currently 2.6 billion smartphone subscriptions globally, with a projected 6.1 billion subscriptions in 2020. That’s about 70 percent of the world’s population, all using smartphones in five years’ time.

And if you account for the Internet of things and M2M services, mobile broadband, and even some basic remaining feature phones, the report states there will be 26 billion connected devices in five years’ time.

That’s a lot of mobile.

5. Content is communication.

“Apps are 50% content, 50% container,” Shapins said. You can have an app that is tactile, beautifully designed, and easy to use, but if the content is not worthwhile, people won’t buy into it.

Take the Cute or Not app again. It’s bright, colorful, and it involves content that is user-uploaded of their personal pets. Now it has a 4+ star rating on iTunes, and people love it.

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6. Don’t replace life – enhance it.

As much as Shapins is an app fanatic, there is always another side to the coin. Yes, our culture is becoming increasingly attached to our mobile devices – but people are starting to look around. And what they see are other people, heads down, eyes on their phones. This, Shapins said, is not the goal.

“When I’m talking to you, I’m talking to you,” he said. “With apps, you want to enhance that experience rather than replace it.”


Check out more from Jesse Shapins (and a lot of nifty GoPop GIFs) here on his site.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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