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June 24, 2015, 9 a.m.
Business Models

Here are some of the best projects from Vox Media’s annual hackfest

Here’s a look at some of the 24 projects that came out of this year’s Vax.

Four hackathons in, Vax (Vox + Hack = Vax) has become an annual tradition for Vox Media. Vox prides itself on two things: being a media organization that makes new and interesting tools, and being a kind place to work. The company sees the hackathon, which grew out of two employees’ idea for how to better use professional development days, as a way to meld the two.

Vox Media has grown considerably in the last year, last month adding Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s Recode to a portfolio that already included The Verge, Vox, SB Nation, Polygon, Eater, Racked, and Curbed. This year’s hackathon began on June 10; 78 members of Vox’s staff, many of whom work remotely, convened in Philadelphia for two days of making and breaking stuff.

Twenty-four projects came out of this year’s Vax, ranging from investigations into a more engaging form of push notifications, to experiments with virtual reality, to a data dashboard that uses predictive data, to back-end organizational tools. Not every employee comes to Vax, but the event brings together people from editorial, leadership, and HR, in addition to product team members. In the weeks leading up to Vax, ideas for hacks and projects are proposed on a Trello board. As time passes, some ideas become more specific, others fall away, and people assign themselves to teams so that by the time everyone gets to Philadelphia they have a rough idea of what they are working on.

One project, “Freelancers,” will help Vox to source and hire the right freelancers for upcoming projects. Lauren Rabaino, product director of editorial, explained on the Vox product blog:

Freelancers hopes to solve a problem that the editorial products team faces almost every day, where the team receive[s] requests for an illustration or logo design from editorial teams, and then someone might have to spend time negotiating a viable price instead of shipping a project. Freelancers offers a clean, templatized framework where those seeking help can find listed not only skills, but price and an explanation of specialties.

Freelancers was one of several projects developed to address the inevitable challenges that Vox faces as it gets bigger. Another such project, Vox Story, is a database to track who in the company has worked on which projects over time. It will be integrated into the team’s Slack. And Buried Bones, aims to harness collective knowledge by organizing various teams’ documentation in one place.

“We take tools really seriously,” said Trei Brundrett, Vox Media vice president of product and technology. “The ones we built at Vax will make us [more] comfortable in the evolution of our media ecosystem.” Moreover, he said, boosting communication and building it into everyday work functions feeds into the company’s ethos of treating coworkers well, a point senior product manager Mandy Brown expounded on on the product blog.

Other projects from Vax aim to expand the types of stories Vox can tell. A recent Eater story that let readers explore the restaurant and zoom in on different aspects of cooking and service was adapted to include virtual reality in a web-viewable version compatible with Google Cardboard. Team “Product Podcast” spent its time at Vax creating a podcast episode about internet accessibility, and wants to think more about how Vox can work podcasting into its coverage.


Several teams looked at tools to increase audience engagement. One project, Notificat, explored how push notifications could be more useful to readers. “We thought about notifications as starting a conversation,” Brundrett said, “to find out what the user knew and then tailoring [notifications] to answer their questions.” Using the Google Chrome notification capability and Roost, a service that allows users to send Safari push notifications to their subscribers, “we tried scenarios where a reader could talk with Polygon about E3, or Eater about the new David Chang restaurant.”

Vox Media readers should be on the lookout for another engagement-themed project, “Conversation Starter.” Beginning from the premise that it can be hard to start a conversation online using a prescribed headline, Conversation Starter aims to personalize sharable content in a way that reflects the user — whether it’s an Eater reader looking to share a recipe that the site recommended to them or a Vox reader sharing infographic on an issue they care about.

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“People talk about culture and say that you know it when you see it, but we really believe that we’re trying to figure out what it means to be a product driven tech and media company,” Brundrett said. “You can’t just tinker around the edges. You have to think about how those things come together.”

Photos of Vax ’15 courtesy of Guillermo Esteves.

POSTED     June 24, 2015, 9 a.m.
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