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Sept. 7, 2016, 12:21 p.m.

With its Maker Week, The New York Times is trying to foster teamwork and, possibly, new products

“Hundreds” of staffers worked on about 85 different projects — including a new Apple TV interface, a restaurant review visualization, and internal tools — at the Times’ annual weeklong event this summer.

News organization stylebooks had a good long run living only as spiral-ring notebooks. But they’ve all gone online in some way or another. Andrei Kallaur, The New York Times’ creative director of news products, first began working to make his paper’s stylebook more accessible to Times journalists in 2013 when he helped build an iOS app version of the document, which highlights the Times’ standards and grammatical rules.

Two years later, he began to think about how the guide could be better adapted to staffers’ device usage, and began to outline a responsive web app version of the style guide. “I considered the importance of search, ease of use, and of course, typographic elegance,” Kallaur wrote in a post describing the process. “I designed a desktop version, tablet version and phone version, all maintaining the same functionality.”

This summer, Kallaur and a team of developers, designers, and editors finished a functioning prototype of the responsive guide as part of the Times’ Maker Week — a weeklong initiative for the paper’s developers, designers, product managers, and other newsroom staffers to take a break from their typical work and focus on other projects.

StylebookAnimationForOpenPost

“We want people to work with people they don’t typically work with day to day,” said Times developer advocate Chrys Wu, who organized Maker Week. “We also give people the freedom and agency to step out of their daily roles and try something different if we want. And the last thing is to creatively attack interesting ideas or things where people think: If we tried the solution, maybe this might work for us. The focus and energy is on new relationships, understanding different types of work and processes, and coming up with fun, cool, useful things.”

Hundreds of staffers participated in this year’s Maker Week, and together they produced about 85 different projects, Wu said.

In addition to Maker Week, the Times holds quarterly Maker Days where staffers can spend a day doing research or pursuing another type of learning opportunity that they may not have time for otherwise. The paper held two hack weeks last year, but the Times is only having the one weeklong event this year — “It was a lot of time for such a big organization to shift their focus,” Wu said.

The Times also decided to change the name from Hack Week to Maker Week to try and make it more inclusive. “Not everyone hacks, but everyone makes,” she said.

“[Anyone] can choose to lead a thing during this week, and the expression of that idea can be more than code,” Wu said. “If you want to really think deeply about process, go do that and find the best expression of that. We had developers who participated in some design sprints, processes that were new to them. So instead of creating a code prototype, they went and did a design mock. They went out and did some user research of their own — they ran off to the park — for this idea, and for them it was really liberating.”

Maker Week was built around four specific themes, Wu said. Though she wouldn’t name the particular themes (“Admittedly, we think of this as a strategic opportunity”), Wu said that their efforts generally dealt with the Times’ relationship with its readers.

Times CTO Nick Rockwell told me that some of the main themes he was interested in during Maker Week were how to grow the Times’ international presence and “building daily habit; different ideas that would point towards people coming to us on a daily basis outside of obvious news consumption.”

About three-quarters of the projects developed during the week were consumer facing while the rest were internally focused, Rockwell said. One area of focus: better fostering of internal communication and productivity.

While some of the projects they worked on, like the responsive style guide, are being further developed, many of the efforts won’t ultimately see the light of day. Rockwell said that while it’s certainly a positive for new products or tools to come out of the Maker Week, that’s not the main emphasis.

“I’m not promising that these things will become part of the consumer product anytime soon,” he said. “One of the reasons that I’m so careful about that is empowerment. If that then turns into pushing stuff onto a project manager’s roadmap that they wouldn’t ordinarily prioritize, that’s not empowerment. I want to push back on that impulse, and try to persuade people and not make them do anything.”

With that caveat in mind, Rockwell highlighted a number of projects with potential. One of them was an Apple TV interface for the Times’ Watching app, which is the paper’s guide to television. Another project was an interactive map of New York City that shows all the restaurants the Times has reviewed. A team also built an Android version of the Times’ NYT Cooking app.

Other projects included an ad-free version of the Times for subscribers and other products that either blocked or measured the performance of advertisements.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to do any of those things, but we care greatly about balancing the needs of advertisers against the user experience and finding the right way to negotiate that handshake,” Rockwell said.

Still, that’s not to say that some of the projects developed during Maker Week don’t make it to consumers. The recently released NYT en Español Android app was first conceived during one of last year’s Hack Weeks and work continued on it during this year’s Maker Week. The Times ultimately launched the app in early August.

“I would’ve thought that that was really hard,” Rockwell said. “Had I been asked to estimate that project I would’ve said, oh, it’s a big deal. In the end, a couple of people from the Android team whipped it up in the couple of weeks…It’s the kind of surprises you can get from this sometimes that’s wonderful when they happen.”

Some of the internal facing projects developed during the week included proposals around more secure newsroom communication and a tool to dynamically crop photos to work on any screen size, Wu said.

Staffers were free to work on projects that interested them, and the process to break out into teams began well before Maker Week began. Wu said she worked with senior Times managers to pick out the themes and decide how to approach Maker Week.

“We all get in a big room and based on the ‘How might we’ questions that we develop from the overarching themes, people will toss out ideas for how might we approach this problem? And people will come up with stuff,” she said. “The other way in which we’ve done this this year, which was a little bit different, that some of the different day-to-day teams had their own sets of ‘How might we’ questions, and we invited anybody who was interested in knowing what those questions were and perhaps working on them to hear the pitch from those teams.”

Once the themes were set, staffers who had relevant projects they wanted to work on sent out messages to pitch others on their ideas, begin forming their teams, and plan out their projects ahead of time so they could make the most of their time.

In his post, Kallaur explained his team assembled and how they approached their work:

During the kickoff meeting, I mentioned this project and asked if anyone would be interested in helping me push it further along. Sure enough, a flurry of emails started coming in. People from different departments, disciplines and backgrounds, including some I had never met, ended up forming the team. Over the course of five days, the Stylebook team (Chris Ladd, Nina Feinberg, Oliver Hardt, William Davis, Marie-France Han, Hamilton Boardman and myself) was able to build out a beautiful, fully-functioning prototype, complete with feature enhancements that are crucial to modern-day newsroom usage.

The Times, of course, isn’t the only publisher to hold hack weeks. Vox Media has put on Vax, its annual hack week, since 2011 and recentThe Guardian holds two-day hack events every three to six months.

Every outlet takes their own approach to their hackathons, but no matter the strategy, the ultimate goal is team building and the hope that the work done during the week could influence future products.

“It’s a creative outlet and a way to foster unity,” Wu said. “And from that, I can say for certain that people will see some new things. Even if the thing itself was not proposed or prototyped during Maker Week, people have told me that their working relationships have changed because of it. They’re like, ‘I had no idea about that organization’s process at all, and by working side by side with them for a week, I got to understand how they do stuff, what is their process, and why do they take the steps that they do or ask the questions that they do.’ There were so many people who were very excited about that, more than the thing that they ended up working on.”

Photo by Alan Levine used under a Creative Commons license. GIF by Andrei Kallaur.

POSTED     Sept. 7, 2016, 12:21 p.m.
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