Earlier this week, I was talking with a fellow journalist about three sites that everyone lumps together, for better or worse: FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, and Vox.
After running through the things I liked and didn’t like about each, I circled back to Vox and said that evaluating it at this early stage felt a little unfair. Unlike the other two, which benefited from a relatively long period of buildup, Vox was born quickly. Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Dylan Matthews announced they were leaving The Washington Post on Jan. 21; their deal with Vox Media was announced Jan. 26; and Vox.com launched April 6. That’s two months and a few days of prep.
That’s radically quick for your typical media company. (Some might still be debating what kind of whiteboard to buy for the planning conference room two months in.) But it’s not at all unusual in the technology world, where the lean startup and minimum viable product are increasingly the standard. As lean startup pioneer Eric Ries puts it:
Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don’t care about the idea, the startup fails.
Anyway, that’s all prologue to this must-read post from Vox Media’s Michael Lovitt, which details the process of Vox.com’s quick launch. It’s all worth reading, but some highlights:
Vox took nine weeks to plan, design, build, test, and go live (six weeks from the time development began). By comparison, the initial launches of The Verge and Polygon occurred about eight months after the respective editorial leads joined the company.
Initially, we intended to set up a throwaway site for Vox, and build up to a big launch in late 2014, or possibly early 2015. But we’ve done a lot of work on our platform since The Verge launched in 2011. Chorus is now a platform with enough built-in functionality that a feature-rich site can be set up quickly, and it enables us to rapidly design, build, ship, and iterate on new ideas.
With the initial version of the site launched, we are just getting started. Melissa announced in a discussion at the end of April that we are no longer referring to what happened on April 6 as a “launch,” but instead as a “deploy,” the first of many. We have transitioned out of post-release bug-fixing mode and into product design and development sprints, and we are releasing new iterations of our work almost every day.
The ultimate success of this approach and of Vox will depend on whether our team and organization are able to maintain momentum and iteratively evolve the site.
Lots more detail in there about the smart reuse of prebuilt technology, how to decide which features needed attention first, and how to get a ton done in a short time without burning out your entire staff.
We’re a long way from Portfolio’s multiyear, $125 million launch in 2007.
I’d love it if more news companies took cues from Vox and other leaner, more agile product development approaches. You can see a bit of that DNA seeping in to some online outlets:
“Anything we can do to avoid big, huge redesigns in the future, we want to do,” said Dan Check, vp of technology at Slate, which redesigned its site last fall for the first time in six years. “They’re disruptive to both our readers and internal business processes. It gives everyone a bit of heartburn.”