Hey, I’m on a podcast

Friend Scott and I had fun recently talking about NPR’s redesign and Web rethinking with the always-inspiring Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte on their Responsive Web Design Podcast. The episode came out this morning. I occasionally said things like “We’re always looking to serve as many people as possible and serve the public service that we see our mission as.” But! Most sentences came out okay.

Someday I’ll be Scrooge?

Was cleaning up last weekend as the holiday season began and realized I never did something I promised my parents: posting Lori’s iPhone video of my supporting role in last year’s NPR holiday-party radio-style (but not on radio) performance of A Christmas Carol. It was a blast. I needed a haircut.

Also! My video of Lori’s reindeer-dance number. We’re really something.

And a few Instagrams from last year:

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Didn’t get any photos from this year’s party, which was last night and a lot of fun after a tough week (seems like they always are, why is that?), but a colleague did take a nice shot of the NPR headquarters gingerbread house.

The new face of NPR Music

On top of the launches of Jazz Night in America and Michel Martin’s Going There hub, my big project this fall has been a responsive redesign of NPR Music’s home. We’re now live, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. We had a fantastic team and — to a person — tremendous collaboration.

From our launch post on the This Is NPR blog:

We have a new home page this morning, and the experience brings you closer to the beating heart of the music than ever before. Optimized across platforms, the new page has a mission.

We want to tell you why we fell in love with certain songs, artists, shows, and stories – and give you reasons to fall for them, too. Whether you’re new to NPR Music or you’ve been with us forever, we hope you like the changes.

Read the rest and see the new homepage.

Best/worst demo I never gave: ‘Our Rundown,’ a CMS drama

I’ve  been cleaning my home computer and just run across notes for a demo idea I had for work that never came together. The timestamp and rambling style of the notes suggest a battle against insomnia and crazy.

At the time, our team was working to launch a massive overhaul of our “rundown” tools, which publish digitally the important rundowns — list of segments — and, even more critically, the audio of every NPR show.

Rundown tools bring together real-time work from many corners of NPR operations: story summaries from lots of radio staffers, edits and updates for those summaries from rundown editors as the day’s show evolves live, “build-outs” of select summaries into fully produced stories by different digital editors and bloggers, cutting and creation of free-standing digital segments by  audio engineers,  music snippets and their segments from the show directors, and actions from maybe a dozen smaller processes.

This beast piece of our CMS was years past its prime. We were rebuilding it and overhauling lots of thus-liberated related production aspects.

So, too late one night before launch, it seemed like a great idea to me to give our last biweekly demo for stakeholders in play form. What we were coding plus Thorton Wilder’s Our Town obviously equaled… Our Rundown.

I’ve cleaned up the notes for clarity… and deleted the last names of my talented colleagues/prospective players to semi-protect the innocent.

Continue reading Best/worst demo I never gave: ‘Our Rundown,’ a CMS drama

How we/NPR built a mobile-friendly preview in our CMS

Poynter has a good article today about how Buzzfeed built a cool mobile-friendly preview into its content-management system.  But the great size of Buzzfeed and the story’s screenshot from the Buzzfeed CMS — which shows a simulation of an iPhone — may intimidate some newsrooms.

It’s important for newsrooms to know, though, that a cool mobile-friendly CMS preview doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive to build. As we went mobile-first at NPR, we built and tested our mobile-friendly preview in just an hour. If your CMS is Web-based like ours, you can do the same.

Prior to our responsive redesign, our digital editors previewed stories in a tab within the CMS interface. This tab, like other screens within our CMS, was desktop-sized. But when we launched the first stage of our redesign — story pages — we made a small change. We stopped rendering the preview tab in the CMS navigation and instead rendered a preview link.  Clicking this link popped a new window at the size of our medium breakpoint.

We then gave simple instructions to editors:

1. Click the link to pop the window. See how it looks. Tablets, check.

2. Drag the window in to see the small breakpoint. Phones, check

3. Drag the window out to see the large breakpoints. Desktops, check.

And that was it. Minimal code plus minimal editor action gave us a mobile-friendly preview. If we’d leaned entirely on code, we would’ve spent days or, if scope had creeped (a common issue in CMS work), weeks building it. Dragging windows in and out was a common way to demo any responsive site. Users never did such dragging. But it served our preview needs well.

Was this approach perfect? No. Our audio players (important at NPR!) appeared as their desktop versions instead of their true mobile versions. Also, if an editor used Flash, the desktop browser would render a SWF that iOS would never show. But we (scrum members in this discussion: product owner, developer, designer, editorial subject-matter expert) quickly decided these issues were tolerable. The desktop and mobile players were of the same size, and (as this discussion was happening in September 2012) our Flash coders were moving to other approaches.

Perfect is the enemy of good, right? We’ve been using our pop-up preview for more than a year now without issues. For us, a perfect cross-platform preview was beyond our resources. But a good one was within easy reach.

Great music before code freeze

Getting close to launching the next element of our NPR.org responsive redesign, we had an amazing soundtrack Friday as we finished coding.

In the office at the Tiny Desk was Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Romanian band of unique horn genre. NPR Music wrote about the group previously, “If any band has figured out how to marry breakneck speed with astonishing chops, it’s Fanfare Ciocarlia (pronounced ‘fan-FAR-eh cho-car-LEE-ah’).”

Click the above link for a full show from the group. Or, for some instant satisfaction, see below for a glimpse of what transpired Friday. If you’re new to Vine, mouse over the image and click the speaker icon for sound.

Failing well

In my last post here, I wrote, “Barring the unexpected, we’re due to launch a pair of big projects at work tonight.” Well, the unexpected occurred, and the projects didn’t launch that night. The two stayed under wraps, in the works again, until about a week later. Then we tried again, with success.

The digital-media industry has talked a terrific deal in recent years of not just allowing but celebrating failure. Accepting the lessons failing teaches supposedly makes us less afraid to explore new ideas, to take our chances, to experiment, to find excitement and enrichment in learning together.

But we — as me, as we NPR, as an industry — still worry too much about creating the perfect something. When we give examples of how we have accepted failure, we often talk about the little things, the attempts that didn’t matter, efforts that were disappointments more than failures.

So, it’s healthy every once in while to have an out-and-out fail.

Say you failed when you tried to release your biggest code changes in four years. You started around 8 at night on a Sunday, just after staff finished processing the last audio from your last show of the day. Around 11, you realized things were running too slowly and jumped into trying different ways to get things right. At 1:30, you understood you’d never be done by the first show of the morning, and you had to reverse course. You found the course back wasn’t as easy as expected. You hit road block after road block until one lucky break lets you revive the publishing systems at 5:30 in the morning, just in time for dawn and first audio from Morning Edition.

Say “you” in this scenario wasn’t just you personally but a team of a dozen — engineers, designers, journalists (like me), and a set of talented others — executing the efforts of an extended team of a few dozen, many of whom have hundreds of thousands of users arriving throughout the next day.

Say you failed.

But you knew your bosses would have your back. You knew you had done all the testing you knew to do ahead of time. You knew when to raise flags; you knew when to reverse course; you knew when adjust and to recognize the lucky break when it broke. You knew to keep calm, to talk or not talk as necessary, to lighten or concern, to ask questions and explain potential next moves, to take your time, to breath, to think about your next shot.

You would feel good leaving the newsroom as the sun came up. You would know you had given the effort your everything, no matter who you were in the night’s fail scenario: the developer, the designer, the product owner, the engineer,  the tester, the scrum master, each having responsibility in part. Attempting had become recovering. Preparing had become learning.

It’s not going to happen tonight, we emailed everyone before going home. But it wasn’t an awful night. we said. Really. We had lost sleep. But no one had lost their cool. The conversation all night had been smart and kind of beautiful, to see so many different good minds grappling at once with the troubles at hand and with the array of consequences shortly beyond them.

A week or so later, much more wrestling complete, the next try works. You go home at two in the morning. You know you have been successful that night, but now all the eyes arrive on what you’ve launched. What you’ve done is imperfect, for sure. Every launch has its issues, wrong directions and coming fixes. You are imperfect. We are imperfect. I am imperfect.

Together or alone, we learn lessons from our failures. We learn, and we learn to try again. The new industry thinking on failing is right. But what we too often forget to recall is that the dawn doesn’t know our jobs. The nights where we fail well and the nights where we succeed are so similar. Another year ends, and the new year begins. We are the only constants, waking and pressing for the unknown, coming home to rest and renew.

The Tiny Desk has been a bit crowded recently

At left, barely, is the top of John Legend’s head. That’s a guess. Great set from the first Tiny Desk performer for whom I own multiple albums. Didn’t see a bit of it, though. Just heard sweet sounds from behind the masses.
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A week later, an equal crowd from Neko Case, who, again, I couldn’t see. But I did see someone who was probably on keyboard. And their dog ran around our floor before the show. Even crowded, Tiny Desk are never bad.
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