We were incredibly excited to host London’s first React Native Leadership event last Thursday, facilitated by Jeremy Burns and Chris Hutchinson at News UK, and hosted by Jacob Brown from La Fosse Associates.
The evening was shaped by everybody’s experiences with React Native - the choices, processes and challenges that they have faced at a leadership level over the last few years. The evening took the format of an introduction to News UK’s journey to React Native, which was followed by a Q and A.
Why React Native?
Jeremy and Chris kickstarted the conversation by explaining their React Native journey over the last 3 years. The Times was used as their example for this.
In early 2017 News UK made the decision to replatform The Times application. The existing product was not optimal and needed a big transformation. The infrastructure and architecture of the application had evolved over the years and the code base was far from ideal - this was stopping News UK being innovative for their customers. With a subscription product, the user experience needs to be consistent whether it’s on Android or iOS. The decision was made to go with React Native. By picking React Native, the aim was to create consistency across the three newspapers. At that point barely any companies were using React Native commercially due to the fact that it was a new technology. When you look at it, all of the papers within News UK stable were using different technologies, but they were all producing much the same thing.
News UK was one of the highest profile companies to jump into React Native. Today, three years later, they have a complete newspaper experience written in React Native.
Challenges and struggles along the way
Even after the restructure and loss of some team members, there were still individuals later on down the line who subtly disagreed, and News UK had to go back to basics a number of times and ask themselves “what are we trying to achieve?” and “what are the real problems we are trying to solve and deliver on?” This would sometimes include the team going into a room for a day and reconsidering. React Native won every time given the outcomes discussed.
There was also a discussion on the importance of having an open mind to decisions such as using React Native, as it can ultimately open many doors and present more pportunity to Native engineers if you embrace React Native. It is important to have a strong balance of web engineers who are keen to learn Native development and mobile engineers who can provide a huge amount of background, context and detail, as well as giving feedback onto the product. The team was built around the existing web engineers who are typically more open minded but may not have sufficient understanding of what goes into building a great mobile app. Finding both sets of engineers is a challenge and keeping them is even harder.
Arguably, one of the downsides of React Native is its cost of maintenance. Having to consistently stay up to date with the changes and updates that came with React Native was difficult, and they were fortunate to have contact with the team of engineers at Facebook. This enabled them to have some of their complex issues answered. One suggestion is to spend time with engineers at Facebook if you are trying to build a React Native app.
News UK has 1.8 million articles. This still presents a challenge today as all articles are in ever so slightly different formats, text layouts and ways of serving images. Maintaining the archive and creating a new rendering platform in a way that honours that archive is important. Design is an important part of a news story, so another real challenge was trying to produce a design that is consistent and easy to maintain, and that the newsrooms are happy with.
Has this been a good decision and where are they now?
It was stated that after using React Native for three years, it was certainly the right decision for News UK. There were initial questions internally as to whether React Native was here to stay in 2017 when it was in its infancy, but in their opinion it is here for the long haul and others strongly agreed. Even though it is complex, for the majority of applications that follow a text, image and networking element, React Native is great.
Since Adopting React Native on the Times, News UK have moved to a technology model where cross-title teams build common components in React Native. So, now, the React Native components are not just used cross-platform but cross-title too.
News UK is now operating a good level of consistency across iOS and Android. Some examples were shown of The Times’ articles on both platforms demonstrating how they have achieved feature parity through using React Native, which pre-2017 was difficult as iOS was further ahead than Android. When the customer is paying for a subscription, they need to be able to access the same quality regardless of whether they are an Android or iOS user. For News UK, feature parity was a key motivator in their decision to go with React Native.
We would like to thank Jeremy and Chris for facilitating London’s first of many React Native Leadership events.