App review: Circa

The other day, I was looking at news apps to subscribe to and one of the apps that I discovered was Circa. I installed the iOS version of the app on my device and had a play with it. As always, I applied the product critique template by Julie Zhuo as I was testing the Circa app:

  1. How did this app come to my attention? – I was looking for news apps which would provide me with an easy-to-use and customisable news feed. In my search, I came across an article on The Next Web which was titled 10 must-have iPhone apps for keeping on top of the news, which mentioned Circa as one of its ten apps to check out.
  2. My quick summary of the app (before using it)  Circa provides a constant news stream which I can filter based on my specific interests. I expect Circa to send push notifications with relevant news updates.
  3. Getting started, what’s the sign-up process like?  I like that the Circa app gives me the option to “sign up later” as I prefer to sign up for accounts at a later stage. This gives me a chance to familiarise myself with the app first. The popup explaining notifications is also easy to understand; explaining both the procedure (“tap OK when prompted”) and the benefits (“You’ll receive breaking news, followed story updates, etc.”) (see Fig. 1 below).
  4. How does the app explain itself in the first minute? – When I click on the bookmark icon on an article in the “Arts & Entertainment” section, the app explains that I can follow story lines, getting push notifications as a story develops (see Fig. 2 below). The one thing that didn’t become immediately clear from the this tooltip was whether I need to be signed into Circa to be able to follow or to share a story. When I do go into a top story, it’s apparent – through the top navigation in the app – what I need to do if I wish to follow or to share a news story respectively. Once I’ve clicked the “follow” button, the button’s state changes immediately to “following” (see Fig. 3 below).
  5. How easy to use was the app? – Very straightforward. On iOS at least, the main actions are limited, simple and well presented: read, share and follow news stories. I liked how comments related to a story get highlighted – the background colour changes from grey to white – when you scroll down a story. This is a welcome feature given that there’s quite a lot of content on each article page.
  6. How did I feel while exploring the app? – Because of it’s simple navigation structure, I found the Circa app easy to navigate. The sections which feature different articles are self-explanatory and well sign-posted. However, I missed a profile or a “For You” section which contains all the stories that I follow across the different sections. It would be nice if I could see in my section which stories I follow across the ‘genres’ that I’m interested in (e.g. technology and sports) and perhaps get some personalised recommendations based on my interests. Not only will help me to understand where follow-up stories to my original ‘follows’ come from, it will also provide me with a nice ‘discovery path’. A personalised section can help me to find slightly older articles and their related stories to follows, which can be helpful particularly if I wish to share a slightly older article (and I can’t remember what it was).
  7. Did the app deliver on my expectations? – The Circa app definitely delivers on its main strap line: “Save Time. Stay Informed”. I find it easy to follow news stories and with Circa’s push notifications, I can dip in and out of stories as they developed.
  8. How long did I spend using the app?  So far, I’ve used the Circa app between 2-4 hours over the past month, reading and following stories.
  9. How does this app compare to similar apps? – There are a lot of news app out there and I see apps such as Flipboard, Daily Mail Online, Pocket, Zite, Facebook Paper and LinkedIn Pulse as direct competitors which offer a user proposition similar to Circa. Circa probably has the cleanest and most intuitive design out of all of them, closely followed by Flipboard. However, I feel that Flipboard gives me more reasons to keep coming back to the app; more opportunities for content discovery and better geared towards ‘collecting’ stories.

Main learning point: Circa is a simple, easy to use news app. It’s one of those “single purpose” apps which successfully delivers on its core proposition. However, I personally would like to see the app improve on its content discovery elements, encouraging users more to explore new content and to see which stories other people are following.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Circa’s push notifications pop-up screen

Circa Notifications


Fig. 2 – Screenshot of Circa’s tooltip regarding following stories

Circa Follow tooltip

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of an article in the Circa feed which I’ve just started following

Circa Article Follow

Gamification and the MDA framework

A few months ago I wrote about some of the principles that underpin game design and I now would like to have a closer look at the specific elements that help to form games and game mechanics. In his online lectures on gamification, Kevin Werbach – an Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at Wharton School – talked about the interplay between:

  • Experiences – What the player feels.
  • Games – A set of rules around which a game is played.
  • Elements – The ‘bits and pieces’ that make up a game.

Kevin then went on to talk about the MDA framework as created by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek in 2001. The MDA framework formalises game consumption by breaking games into their distinct elements: rules, system and “fun”. These elements translate into the following design counterparts which comprise the MDA framework: Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (see Fig. 1 below). What do these different components of the MDA framework entail?

  1. Mechanics – In his lecture, Kevin Werbach described game mechanics as “the processes that drive actions forward”. He subsequently compared mechanics to “verbs” which help people to play games (see Fig. 2). In their academic article, Robert Hunicket et al. defined game mechanics as “the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms”.
  2. Dynamics – After comparing game mechanics to “verbs”, Kevin likened game dynamics to “grammar”. These are “big picture aspects” which combine game mechanics (“verbs”) and game components (“nouns”). A game dynamic can be defined as a pattern of loops that turns them into a large sequence of play. Tadhg Kelly has written a great blog post where he delves deeper into game dynamics (see Fig. 3) and I also came across an interesting TED Talk by Seth Priebatsch (see Fig. 4) on the same subject. On the topic of “game components”, Kevin compared these to “nouns” which put together help to form the flow of a game. These are specific instantiations of game mechanics and dynamics (see Fig. 5).
  3. Aesthetics – In the MDA framework, the point about “game aesthetics” is all about making games ‘fun’. One of the guys behind the MDA framework, Marc LeBlanc, came up with 8 kinds of fun as a more specific vocabulary to describe game aesthetics (see Fig. 6). In the MDA framework, game aesthetics are described as “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system”.

Main learning point: the MDA framework is great practical tool which helps to think about games and gamification in a more structured kind of way. We all know how easy it can be to slap a leader board or points system into a game or an application but the MDA framework really forces us to think about our rationale for considering some of these game elements.

Fig. 1 – The MDA framework by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek (2001) – Taken from:


Fig. 2 – Sample list of game mechanics as provided by Kevin Werbach as part of Coursera’s online Gamification course

  • Challenges
  • Chance
  • Competition
  • Cooperation
  • Feedback
  • Resource acquisition
  • Rewards
  • Transactions
  • Turns
  • Win states

Fig. 3 – “Game Dynamics and Loops” by Tadhg Kelly – Taken from:

  • Linear vs player driven dynamics – A good example of a linear game dynamic is Space Invaders where the game dynamic is the continuing increase of challenge as the enemies proceed down the screen and get faster. With player driven game dynamics like in Animal Crossing the loop is the receipt of a task and the actions to complete that task, but the dynamic is the further branching of more tasks across days or weeks.
  • Primary vs secondary dynamics – There are plenty of games out there which are based upon a single, powerful game dynamic. A good example of a game with such a strong primary dynamic is World of Goo where the game is all about creating structures with balls of goo. In contrast, games such as Wii Sports contain lots of mini-games, each with their own dynamic.

Fig. 4 – Seth Priebatsch “Building the game layer on top of the world” – TED Talk on 20 August 2010

Fig. 5 – Sample list of game components as provided by Kevin Werbach as part of Coursera’s online Gamification course

  • Achievements
  • Avatars
  • Badges
  • Boss fights
  • Collections
  • Combat
  • Content unlocking
  • Leaderboards
  • Gifting
  • Levels
  • Points
  • Quests
  • Social graph
  • Teams
  • Virtual goods

Fig. 6 – Sample game aesthetics by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek (2001)  – Taken from:

  • Sensation – Game as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy – Game as make-believe
  • Narrative – Game as drama
  • Challenge – Game as obstacle course
  • Fellowship – Game as social framework
  • Discovery – Game as uncharted territory
  • Expression – Game as self-discovery
  • Submission – Game as pastime

Related links for further learning:


App review: Zoopla

I always like discovering new apps, playing with them and seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I recently looked at some apps in the property finder’ space. Julie Zhuo has recently written up a good way to do a “product critique” which template I’ll apply to my app reviews. I recently used the iOS app from Zoopla, a UK based property site, and applied Julie’s product critique template:

  1. How did this app come to my attention? – I looked at the Zoopla site a few years ago, but hadn’t interacted with the site (or the app) since. I’d heard about significant improvements to both the user interface and functionality of the app, reason why I was keen to have a play with the app.
  2. My quick summary of the app (before using it)  Zoopla’s app enables users to find properties to buy or rent in their local areas.
  3. Getting started, what’s the sign-up process like?  Registering as a new Zoopla user was pretty straightforward; only an email address and a password were required for me to register. I noticed that I didn’t need to be logged in to do actions such as messaging the estate agent about a property that I was interested in. This clearly makes it easier for me to quickly enquire about a property.
  4. How does app explain itself in the first minute? – On the app’s opening screen, it clearly says “Zoopla” followed by the “Smarter property search” strap line. Most of he options on the opening menu – ranging from “For sale” to “MyZoopla” – are pretty self-explanatory (see Fig. 1 below). I felt that some of the navigation options could have benefited from some additional explanation. For example, “Current values” and “MyZoopla” could have done with explanatory hover over comment to explain their function and value to users.
  5. How easy to use was the app? – I found it very easy to use the app. When I played with the app, I particularly concentrated on an important use case: finding a property to buy (see Fig. 2 below). The app lets users filter their searches by a number of factors such as price and number of bedrooms (see Fig. 3 below). When you get the results, the app enables both hiding and sorting of the results. Hiding can be particularly helpful if one doesn’t want the same search results to come up time and time again. By default, the search results are sorted by ‘Most recent’ but users can sort by e.g. ‘lowest price’ or by ‘most popular’.
  6. How did I feel while exploring the app? – Zoopla’s app is easy to explore; the navigational items are clearly signposted and the split menu bar meant that I could easily find my way around in the app.
  7. Did the app deliver on my expectations? – Yes, the app was simple and easy to use. It delivered on the main use cases that I expected the app to cover: finding properties, either to buy or to rent. However, the one bit of functionality and information that I missed from the app was the ability for users to sell their properties or put them up for rent through the app. It made me wonder whether this could be because Zoopla’s business model is based around estate agents who submit properties to be listed in the app.  
  8. How long did I spend using the app?  I’d say I spent about 15 minutes in total playing with the app.
  9. How does this app compare to similar apps?Lovely Rentals in the US and Rightmove in the UK are apps similar to Zoopla. I personally find the user interface of the Rightmove app a lot less appealing in comparison; it gives me the feeling that I have to work hard to get the property results that I’m looking for. A good example is the “Sale Filters” screen in the Rightmove app (see Fig. 4 below). At a first glance, I struggle to comprehend what the “advanced” option will do for me or what “Include Sold STC” means. In contrast, I immediately sensed that the Zoopla was easy-to-use and intuitive.

Main learning point: Zoopla’s property app is easy to use and intuitive. It’s a no-frills app which does exactly what you expect it to do. I like the way the app gives it users the ability to easily filter and sort search results. All around, a good and easy to use app!

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the opening screen of the Zoopla app

zoopla-opening screen

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of property listings on the Zoopla app


Fig. 3 – Screenshot of search options when looking to buy property through the Zoopla app

Zoopla searches

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of the “Sale Filters” screen in the Rightmove app