Research project #2. This is part of a series of research projects. See the first project #1 where we tried to make a page rank algoritm for physical locations.
Project: We wanted to create an ultra-localized newspaper with the visual language of print but based only on RSS feeds and with no human intervention. Usage examples: allowing real estate agents to offer a localized newspaper, adding information that is related to a homeowner – popular venues, local council info, what people on the street tweet about, local news headlines, and so on.
Background: There were two core drivers behind the idea of this research project.
1.Our fascination with just how superior offline print design is compared to digital when it comes to the experience of consuming text. While the internet offers a world of opportunities when it comes to creating engaging storytelling experiences, it seems that the innovations around reading text online has a long way to go. Print papers offers many subtle but powerful properties not yet found online:
- a great way to find out how much content there is still to be read (by gauging how many pages are left)
- added visual clues to enforce the emotional impact of the story
- a structure/format that creates a reading flow and a sense of “freedom from choice” in what to read next
- a focus point that doesn’t get interrupted with hyperlinks, pop-ups, or ads.
2. Our respect for how Netflix taught us how to introduce new technology when users are ready for it (rather than when it can be done). About 10 years ago I gave a talk at Harvard Business School about digital television. Someone from the audience asked me what I thought about Netflix. My answer was that Netflix was missing the point and that VOD would overtake them shortly. In retrospect, it is clear that Nexflix had actually done something very smart. They met their users with a product (movie rental) that was aligned with their users’ technology comfort level and then established a business relationship with them on the users’ terms. Now as broadband and connected devices are commonly used, they can migrate their business alongside their users into new digital platforms and offer their own VOD offering. I don’t know the Netflix people, but I assume that they are so smart that they had this planned all along. The lesson from Netflix is to keep an eye on where the users are in their adoption of new technology and then think how you can design new products so users don’t have to change their behavior too much in order to start adopting the service. With that in mind, consider this fact: the direct mail business in the US is still several times bigger than all internet advertising.
Gavin, Stacey, and I were discussing the above and came up with the idea of making an ultra-localized print paper that would utilize all the amazing local content that is available online and create a system that would format the content into a visually pleasing paper design, which would then be printed and delivered to people’s homes.
We started to find great sources of content that could be extracted from the web by only knowing a user’s zip/postcode. The thinking was that real estate agents would sponsor the print of these magazines and target the streets/postcodes they wanted to sell houses in. We found there was a lot of great content out there. Here are a few examples of sources we used:
- Foursquare check-ins to find out what places were hot on your street/block
- Meet-up information about what meetings were going on
- Price information about your street, so you can see if you are making money on your apartment/house
- Free things that people around you are giving away on Craigslist
- The Guardian’s local API for local news
- Local reviews on Yelp
- Local council meetings
Our “hacker in residence” Andras did some research on how to do some formatting and choosing of the content we had taken in and Gavin did some nice designs. We then teamed up to get this printed on real newspaper paper with the awesome guys at Newspaperclub who had already done an interesting and rather similar prototype of a service for people moving into a new area.
Below is the result. A nicely designed ultra-local newspaper based on my postcode. We could now do these week in and week out based on any postcode without having to do much or any work.
As this was a research project we don’t plan to take the concept further, but we might use it for other projects we are involved in. To test the concept we applied the same solution to myheritage.com (se pictures below) to see if we could apply the same system to another problem. Here we took the data (dummy data was used) that was already available and created a yearly update paper for my family. The thought was that many people would like to get access to online data but would find paper better suited as a medium.
I realize that many will say that (i)Pads can provide the same experience and there is no clear business model for this idea. This is partly true. The iPad has already seen an amazing growth in apps that mirror the visual design of papers and magazines. For us this was not about arguing about whether one business, platform, or process was better than another, but to experiment on how to use convergence to come up with a completely new experiences. When sat down with a nicely designed magazine about our street – that had been made totally automatically – we felt we somewhat succeeded.
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The MyHeritage.com proof of concept: