Launch a Pioneering Solution for Digital Content

Product Lead Product Design User Experience

  1. The Challenge
  2. The Strategy
  3. The Process
  4. The Results

Many companies struggle with digital content development. They need a way to collaborate on content creation and then efficiently distribute to as many formats and channels as possible. My role as Head of Product & Design required thinking big and coming up with a solution that would ultimately change the digital publishing industry.

The companies we worked with had the same kinds of problems. They're still rooted in print production, don't understand the nuances of mobile device support, and use outdated, inefficient workflows when working with global teams. Some companies still use legacy file formats to get by and lack internal skillsets for designing digital experiences. I saw these as an opportunity to solve many business problems with a single software solution. That application had to be a simple yet powerful content development platform where publishers could import their legacy print files and create beautiful content with compelling interactivity. It had to be self-service and accessible to global teams in order collaborate on digital content creation and distribution. It had to be flexible and extensible.

I had already learned extensively about our customer's needs by interacting with them daily on similar projects. I built a internal prototyping tool in order to deliver their projects more efficiently and it was time to take this tool to the next level. The next step was to codify the product vision for this new product we called "Chaucer." The vision was distilled down into a short statement:

"A cloud-based content creation and conversion platform for publishers."
Each word of the statement was elaborated on in a vision document to make the big idea as clear as possible:

  • Cloud-based: A multi-tenant SaaS model providing services via the Internet
  • Content creation: Authoring, designing, compositing or otherwise creating something
  • Content conversion: Transforming content to and from specific formats
  • Platform: Usable as a tool for specific tasks and able to build applications and customizations upon it using APIs (PaaS)
  • Publishers: Anyone who creates digital content with the intent of disseminating it, large or small

To help focus product development, I created a set of core tenets that would guide us through the process. These attributes included: Scalable, Easy to Use, Powerful, Fast, Flexible, Relevant, and Attractive. The overall vision and these principles would help prevent us from going down the wrong path and losing sight of our goals.

This was a completely new market and our goal was to drive this new product to market in the shortest timeframe possible. Competitive research was difficult due to the lack of alternatives and they didn't always provide an "apples to apples" comparison of what worked and what didn't, but I felt that my previous prototype and business development discussions provided enough details about the features and market to establish a good foundation.

In order to best understand the challenges of a handful of publishers that were already creating digital content, I joined the W3C/IDPF, the organization which manages the ePub specification (the industry standard for eBooks). The W3C/IDPF, BISG, and other organizations were made of of companies with the same problems and pain points, which added to my research.

Our first client for Chaucer, solely on product vision alone, was Time, Inc. With their large portfolio of brands like Sports Illustrated, People, Sunset, Cooking Light, and Fortune, they were the perfect partner with a wide range of content to help define the initial set of requirements. We used them for Conceptual User Research to determine what types of features they needed and tasks they needed to perform. Our Task Analysis both confirmed our original vision and uncovered new details about their workflow we needed to take into consideration (e.g. custom Adobe InDesign plugins, network constraints). This data enabled me to create a Mental Model of the user and develop User Personas to define the various user archetypes.

With the research and requirements in mind, I created initial wireframes and simple prototypes to validate the user experience when performing various tasks: creating a project, importing content, formatting content, and exporting content were the key features of the MVP. Early stages of the product development also used paper prototyping and click-thru demos to validate some concepts. I developed an Interaction Model of UI concepts to clearly define the behavior of the application and enable it to consistently scale as the feature set expanded.

Sample wireframes and feature breakdown.

Our team of engineers used the Agile methodology to develop the product in two-week sprints. Both the visual design and UX design teams also worked in this cadence. From our wireframes and prototypes, we created visual designs in Photoshop and Sketch to implement. Some prototypes had usable code, which shortened the delivery time. Using an Agile prototyping process, we iterated on various design concepts for testing and refinement before development.

In nine months, we had a working product that was ready for beta. We performed final usability testing with the client to validate the initial feature set. This uncovered unforeseen aspects of a feature or a change in the way the users wanted to see something work. Once we resolved those issues, we integrated Google Analytics and New Relic to gather usage data, track feature usage, analyze errors, and perform additional validation on our original goals, correcting as needed.

After testing the beta with our first customer, we launched Chaucer for all our other customers, rolling each out one by one—analyzing data, collecting feedback, validating refinements, and making improvements as part of each on-boarding process. In the process, we received a lot of customer feedback and a lot of helpful suggestions for future roadmap planning.

A few new technologies came out of the product development process. I invented solutions for a number of complex tasks/problems:

  • Systems, Methods, and Media for Generating Electronic Books: A streamlined way to convert and produce digital content.
  • Digital Media Personalization: A flexible way for authors to "sign" copies of their digital books that can be verified.
  • Systems, Methods, and Media for Generating Structured Documents: An algorithmic system that takes unstructured content and creates order and structure—to analyze data input, create context, evaluate content, derive structure, give the user the ability to intervene if a decision is not clear or correct and learn from those decisions.
  • Adaptive Learning Components: AI for adapting content for optimum learning efficacy.

In addition to being incorporated into the application, I wrote and achieved patents for these new ideas.

Chaucer is used by many companies to create their digital content, including:

  • Microsoft: Using a custom workflow, Microsoft creates technical course content
  • Pearson: The largest print publisher in the world creates interactive educational content
  • Create internal and marketing collateral for mobile devices, including their Dreamforce conference guide (a project I personally led).

These three companies have very different content development needs, but they converge on a core set of product features in Chaucer. This helps validate the product vision and tenets have the right focus on solving the right problems.

After the product launch, we added a permissions systems and feature toggles so we could test specific features in a limited rollout to a small number of customers before a full deployment. This enabled us to develop and refine features with minimal or no impact on customers.

In later versions of the software, I developed a widget specification in conjunction with the W3C/IDPF to establish a standard for interactive components in digital content and books.

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