One of the most exciting times in the development of any new product is when concepts begin to give way to reality. That’s the phase we’re entering now with Printcasting, our Knight News Challenge project to democratize print publishing and make print advertising affordable for local businesses.
After three months of working with conceptual mockups and user interface flows, we’re finally able to click through a set of Web pages connected to a database that generates simple magazine-style PDF files. In the coming weeks and months we’ll be sharing more of that with you, starting with videos and, as soon as possible, prototypes and betas that you can play around with to provide feedback. None of these will be the final application — which launches in March — but they will allow us to work with the larger community of people who have an interest in Printcasting to help us make the final product that much better.
In the meantime, I’d like to share a little about the team we’ve assembled that’s making this happen, and how we’re getting from point A to Z. I’m excited to put the spotlight on them because I know that they’re all extremely excited about Printcasting and want it to be a big success. We want everyone to feel a sense of ownership of Printcasting because it’s an open source project. That begins with the people I mention below, but you can also get involved (more on that later).
The hardest and most important thing I’ve done this year is build a new team while transitioning from my other duties. For those of you who are just now entering your ideas for next year’s Knight News Challenge, take note. The planning process for your transition should begin in your head as soon as you fill out your entry form. We started our planning in February of last year when we learned that The Bakersfield Californian was a News Challenge finalist.
While Printcasting was proposed by three of us — myself, Justinian Hatfield and Mary Lou Fulton — it quickly became clear that we couldn’t all drop what we were doing to make it happen. And we felt that it was paramount to have at least one full-time staff person responsible from start to finish. I began the emotionally difficult job of planning my eventual exit from the exciting social media work I helped start at the Californian back in 2004.
Fortunately, Justinian was ready and willing to step into my shoes, and he remains a trusted Printcasting advisor, stakeholder and friend. And Mary Lou has been incredibly helpful in an oversight role for the company. She will be even more involved in the second phase, when we launch and market Printcasting in Bakersfield.
Finding the Lead Developer
Printcasting sounds like a simple idea, and to the user it will definitely feel that way, but underneath it’s a complicated piece of software with a lot of moving parts. While it uses an open-source foundation (Drupal), the most essential components — the ones that create a magazine using variable content — are custom code.
We knew that we’d be best off with a full-time staff developer. We found the right mix of skills and passion in Ron Robinson, who had done some contracting work for the Californian starting in January. At his previous job he built a system that lets people create print layouts for books that feature their own photos. He was truly the right person for the job at the right time, so as soon as we got word about our grant we extended him an offer.
Crafting the User Experience
All the rest of our budget (the majority of it) is for contractors. Our most urgent need at first was for conceptual mockups to help us think through the user experience. I began putting out the word for user interface designers as early as March. While we talked to a lot of qualified individuals and firms, I ultimately decided that I needed someone who I knew would understand the vision of Printcasting.
Tom Dellecave, an old colleague from AOL who now operates his own company Second Wind Media, did a great job creating an initial UI. You can see his work in the concept presentation in this video on Printcasting.com.
At this time we also began to think more about the visual look, feel and layout of the PDF magazines and newsletters Printcasting would generate. This is an area where The Bakersfield Californian has a lot of talent, and I was fortunate to get some initial help from staff designer Glenn Hammett.
Writing the Code
During this time, Ron was poring over a 55-page Product Requirements Document I’d written and attempting to fit that into a technical architectural plan. Around the middle of the summer he’d settled on using the Drupal framework, based on its modular architecture and large and growing community. We began putting out feelers for PHP developers with experience in Drupal who could work with Ron as a virtual development team. After once again talking to lots of different companies and individuals, including five which provided proposals based on our specs, we chose Photon Infotech out of Chennai, India.
Before now, the furthest I’d ever personally outsourced anything to was Canada. Working with a company on the opposite side of the globe was and still is new for everyone on our team. After one month we’re very happy with the knowledge, commitment and responsiveness we’re seeing from Photon, and I’m surprised to find that the Indian developers at Photon are more communicative and customer-focused than some U.S.-based developers we talked to. And while this isn’t the only reason we chose them, it’s also really great to know that we’re getting two full-time developers working on Printcasting for the same cost as one half of a developer in the U.S. or Canada.
I should also mention that having our own full-time staff developer who manages the contract developers gives us the flexibility and confidence to outsource in this way. I feel strongly that it’s important to keep the vision of a product very close. Once you have the right core team it makes sense to fill in the holes with contractors whose physical locations are less important.
Designing the User Experience
Once we chose Drupal, we knew we needed someone who could translate Tom’s conceptual thinking into designs that would work on any Drupal site. And aside from that, we needed a designer who could create everything from the graphics, templates and themes that Drupal needs to the content and ad templates that Printcasting will generate.
When I stumbled across Don Hajicek, formerly of Boulder Drupal shop pingVision, I knew I’d found someone special. You will get to see Don’s work soon, but let me just say that sometimes I think he understands the value proposition of Printcasting better than I do. Perhaps this is to be expected of someone who started out as a print advertising designer in Chicago, competed with his local newspaper using what we now call a “hyperlocal” Web site, and started his own Web design firm.
Don will subcontract as needed to Greg Hines, a developer who understands the ins and outs of Drupal themes and architecture. Both Don and Greg are very involved in the Drupal community, which excites us because they’ll be able to help us spread the word about Printcasting to thousands of Drupal sites when it’s provided as an open source module.
Thanks to all of the people above, we’re now finally hitting a running stride with Printcasting. Among our next milestones are to release a rapid prototype for feedback, launch an alpha before Thanksgiving, and release a series of increasingly open betas between then and February. That will give us plenty of time to polish the edges and — who knows — maybe even squeeze in a few extra features before we launch in Bakersfield on March 2.
Join the Team!
I’ve talked a lot about our team, but it’s a lot larger than the people listed here. Do you want to help shape the direction of Printcasting? Join our team of advisors on the Printcasting.com social network. We’ll be using the site as a launching pad for testing and feedback. There are 102 members already, and there’s always room for more. The more input we get over time, the better the final product will be when we open source it. Hope to see you there!