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July 25, 2016, 11:19 a.m.
Reporting & Production

At Vox Media’s latest hackathon, devs focus on the distributed web, brand identity, and user accessibility

“The general question we presented everyone with was: What does it look like to build our brands and do storytelling on all of these new places?”

Many of the standout projects at Vax, Vox Media’s annual hack week, don’t seem to have much in common with one another.

Eaterbot, for example, is a Slack bot that offers users Eater-vetted recommendations on what to eat in cities around the world. Tonr, on the other hand, is an effort to create “a more inclusive photo app” with filters that amplify black and brown skin tones rather than wash them out. One of the projects, Accessibility Guidelines, isn’t even a “product” at all, but rather an open-sourced set of best practices for making the web more usable for people with disabilities.

Vox Media’s product team has held its Vax event since 2011, using the hackathon to both develop new projects and bring its distributed team of developers, designers and project managers together. It’s as much of a team building event as it is a product building one. This year marked a first for the event: Unlike previous years, where developers were given little direction about what kinds of projects to work on, this was the first year Vox offered a theme: create projects that improve the way Vox’s eight brands are presented in an increasing distributed content world.

“The general question we presented everyone with was: What does it look like to build our brands and do storytelling on all of these new places?” said Trei Brundrett, Vox Media’s head of product. “But we also told people that they could do whatever they wanted. So there are some projects that are tangentially related to the theme, and some that focused on it entirely.”

One project with that theme at its heart is Polyphony, which will let Vox offer realtime conversations around around specific articles. Editors will be able to comment via not only Slack but other outside chat clients as well. IDA, another Vax effort, incorporates content from social media to go deeper on big stories, and SB Nation FanShots is a native app that makes it easier for SB Nation users to read and post to the site’s FanShots communities.

Vox’s increasing focus on the off-platform world ties into some personnel shifts at the company. Pablo Mercado, Vox’s former vice president of technology, is now its chief technology officer, and vice president of design Ted Irvine will be charged with creating a brand identity group at Vox Media. Both will report directly to Brundrett, who said that the organization’s shifts reflect how Vox is building strategic thinking about brand identity into every part of its organization, particularly as the company continues to expand beyond text and its own sites.

“On one hand, we have something like Vox Entertainment doing TV deals, and on the other hand, we have all the video we’re producing on other platforms. The idea of brand identity has become a much bigger notion for us,” he said.

Another theme for Vax these year was accessibility. Both Tonr and the new Accessibility Guidelines, mentioned above, are efforts to make Vox more conscious of the types of things that big product-focused tech companies like Google and Apple think about every day. 

“When you talk to people at these companies, what you find is that these are the types of thing that aren’t really on the minds of people at media companies, because they’re focused on content first,” Brundrett said. “I think all of this is an indication that we’re trying to be a full-product company.”

POSTED     July 25, 2016, 11:19 a.m.
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