The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jun 05, 2012

Three lessons learned in implementing a winning Knight News Challenge project

Posted by Jon Vidar

Since the announcement of our Knight News Challenge grant back in June, we at The Tiziano Project have been extremely busy. As an organization, we provide new media journalism training in conflict, post-conflict, and underrepresented regions. In the last year, our team has launched programs and partnerships that have brought us to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Latvia, South Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and an Apache Indian reservation.

Simultaneously, we are neck deep in the development of our new collaborative storytelling platform that was directly funded through the News Challenge. StoriesFrom will be based on our pilot 360 Kurdistan and will allow organizations and individuals to easily create immersive online experiences that depict the richness of communities worldwide from both local and professional perspectives.

While we still have a long way to go, here are a few lessons we have learned so far:

1) Don't bite off more than you can chew

When we started, we wanted StoriesFrom to do it all: It should display stories in a fun and engaging manner, it should reinvent conversations and how to connect with local communities, it should be a fundraising tool for organizations and individuals, and more. For every component, we had ideas of custom ways for developing more efficient and effective tools than what already exists. 

As development schedules set in however, we quickly realized that we had to pull in the reins a bit and not attempt to reinvent the wheel, sliced bread and mobile computing all at the same time. 

As a team, we decided to focus heavily on the core storytelling experience and to make sure that the site is, first and foremost, a tool that both content producers and content consumers will enjoy using. We will still be incorporating all the things mentioned above, but will leverage many existing tools in the first iteration of the platform and expand as demand for the services grow.


2) Decentralized teams work just as well as in an office (Maybe better)

Jerusalem, Portland, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles -- In each of these cities a separate component of design and development for StoriesFrom has been occurring during the last five months. I decided to assemble a network of individuals rather than go the centralized agency route for two reasons. First, agencies are expensive. Their costs reflect keeping the lights on, in addition to the talent it takes to actually build the product. Second, I wanted to create a core team that truly cared about the product and our organization. In my experience, agencies never quite feel the same commitment to a project as a small team working together. I wanted to avoid decisions being made based solely on time and budget as opposed to what is actually the best choice for the user experience.

Our development team, which is made up of Grant Kindrick (design), Kat Downs (front-end development), Laura Laytham Zaki (back-end development), and my myself (digital shepherd), are all extremely invested in the project and have each shaped a significant part of the platform. For five months, we have had weekly update calls via Skype (which with a 10 hour time difference between PST and Jerusalem were not easy). These calls have kept us focused and on target with priorities. 

So while we have no offices and only a part-time team working on the development of the platform, we do have a sense of ownership and accountability over all aspects of our work. Shaping a product as a small team, in which everyone's opinion matters, is a priceless experience and no longer needs to take place in the traditional office environment.


3) "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

One of my primary goals for the original 360 Kurdistan was simplicity. I wanted to make sure that it did not feel like a website -- no standard header, footer, or 960px wide layout. I wanted to remove any traditional navigation so that people would be able to explore Iraqi Kurdistan as if they were there, never fully knowing what may exist around the next bend. 

What we created was a full screen experience that enabled viewers to explore the stories in a nonlinear fashion. Only three buttons exist to help guide users: Reporters, Mentors and About.

As we worked to incorporate the concepts of the 360 Kurdistan into StoriesFrom, the platform became increasingly complicated. We still wanted to avoid creating a stale website or forcing complicated navigation structure onto our users, so we went through wireframe after wireframe attempting to simplify the experience. 

While StoriesFrom is significantly bigger in scale than the original 360 Kurdistan, we managed to condense the primary navigation to a single button: Explore.

Within the Explore menu, visitors will be able to experience the content in multiple ways. They will be able to view complete projects or open custom story walls presenting content from around the world based on key themes or locations. Visitors will also be able to navigate directly to organizations', reporters', and mentors' profiles. 


Stay Tuned

While we are still in development, we have already learned a ton getting to this point. As we gear up to launch the platform on July 7 at the Dokufest International Film Festival in Prizren, Kosovo, I look forward to many more lessons to share. 

Sign up here for updates:

And in the meantime, check out the video above produced by The Tiziano Project Mentor, David Freid, that takes you on a virtual tour of the holy sites of Jerusalem in just 60 seconds. Try not to blink.

By Jon Vidar, co-founder and executive director, The Tiziano Project

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