Why exactly does The Boston Globe need a lab? I ask not out of Lab sensitivity (in that “we had one before labs were cool” way), but in the practical sense. Most newspapers aren’t known for spending a lot of resources on R&D. In an era where money is tight and newsrooms have shrunk, why carve out room for experiments that may not turn into anything?
Of course, that question answers itself — it’s precisely because the traditional business model is in such disarray that it makes sense to invest in ideas that could turn into something bigger. In order for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com to grow and thrive as online properties, the Globe is counting on its lab to create the kind of products and ideas that will help each site succeed. The mission of the Globe Lab is less decades-away dreams and more like producing near-future products.
“We want to experiment in platforms and technologies that could become real Boston Globe or Boston.com products that are offered to our customers in a year or so,” said Chris Marstall, a creative technologist for the Globe. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff that isn’t clearly not product-izable.”
The Globe Lab is both a physical space and a collection of people working not too far from the Globe newsroom, where they’ll work on things that could be used to help produce better journalism, entice advertisers, and reach more readers. Or, as Marstall told me when I went for a visit, just make cool stuff. Things like the Information Radiator, or the other things percolating at Beta.Boston. Because sometimes building weird, obscure things leads to creating something that could be useful in the near future. “We want to expand, but expand in platforms that could become real Boston.com products for consumers in a year from now,” Marstall said.
So what are they working on? One idea is deploying the New York Times R&D Lab’s Project Cascade, both to see the reach of Globe stories and what possible forward-facing uses there are for the visualization. Another early experiment is what Marstall calls a “gestural reader” that uses the hack for Microsoft Kinect to make motion sensitive newspaper displays. (Imagine a digital version of the Globe you could place in public that people could flip through with a wave of their hand.)
“It’s all about: What is the user experience? We’re not really talking about technology.”
One tool they’ve already rolled out is Shim, a tool that allowed the development team at BostonGlobe.com to browser test that snazzy new responsive design across multiple devices. Using Shim, they could see how the site renders on an iPad or netbook, and it would mirror itself (in the format fitting the device) in a Windows Phone or Kindle at the same time. Though Shim was developed for testing the new site, it could also easily be used by designers or the advertising staff to see how their work unfolds on different devices. Marstall said Shim is a good example of the type of thing they want to do at the Globe Lab, something that helps them test their products and hopefully gain new knowledge to put to work. “It’s all about: What is the user experience?” he said. “We’re not really talking about technology. A printed newspaper is one user experience. A website is a completely different user experience. Twitter is another user experience. What do people like? What do people want? We just don’t know.”
Which, again, points to another reason to have a lab. It’s a more consumer-oriented stance for a newspaper, trying to divine what readers want. Sure, Kraft has plenty of snack scientists working around the clock to figure out the next Ritz or a Wheat Thin. But it also makes sure those experiments get put in front of actual users…er, snackers. The Globe Lab (the space) will be well suited for consumer testing, an open space that screams out for things to be touched. When completed the lab’s set-up will be not unlike an Apple Store, with desks, chairs, and tables where people can fiddle with the latest creations. They’ll also have what Marstall is calling an app wall, which will consist of three pairs of 40-inch displays. This is where they’ll shake down new ideas, like Google Maps overlays for Boston that see the city through Instagram photos, Marstall said.
“I think in many ways it’s perfectly legitimate for an organization like a newspaper to rely on outside vendors and outside companies to track innovation,” Marstall said. “But I think it’s probably better for us to have some inquiry we do on our own.”