Philadelphia and #VAX2015

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[Some members of our awesome VAX team: Brian Anderson, Joe Alicata, Dylan Lathrop, and Trei Brundrett at whiteboard.]

VAX, the Vox Media Product team’s annual hackathon, went down last week in Philadelphia. I tweeted at its close on Friday that VAX is one of the very best Vox things, and it is: four days of pure creativity as 75-ish Vox Product team members put aside their normal work for a week, form up into impromptu small teams, and build some really cool shit. The Vox Product blog will summarize all the projects soon, but this gives a taste of affairs at #VAX2015. (VAX = “Vox hacks,” somehow.)

This year, for the first time, I joined a VAX team: our Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett‘s Notifications project. You know, notifications: the messages that appear on the lock screen of your iPhone, or slide in and out of the upper right corner of your Macbook screen from news apps like Circa, news sites like NYTimes, or, you know, your friends. The right notifications are great, but the number of apps that I’ve revoked notifications on is even greater. Unless you’re a straight communications app, making the case for turning on and keeping on notifications is tricky.

Notifications haven’t been something we’ve done at Vox Media, and Trei wanted us to consider whether we should. In his words: “I want us to take a thoughtful approach to why we’d even do push notifications and what value they would provide to our users/readers. Is it for news? Or about activity around their engagement on the site? Is this an editorial tool or something that is automated? Is it both? How do we make our users LOVE our notifications and take screenshots of how awesome they are instead of just trying to push people to our site?”

Our team spent the first day at VAX whiteboarding answers to these questions. Along the way, Trei proposed a fundamentally cool vision that framed our thinking that followed: that rather than notifications getting pushed to users who’d read them and then delete them, we should think of notifications as the start of a conversation. Like the way you can now respond to a text message on your lock screen without ever leaving the lock screen — what if Vox notifications could compel that kind of user engagement? And what if the conversation let us better tailor what kind of future notifications we should send you? (Never mind the fact that we can’t quite pull this off on an iPhone, yet. The future is vast.)

The second day of VAX saw the team get down to serious designing and hacking. Having ahem limited skills at either, I brought my serious cheerleader game, and caught up on email. And by Friday morning, we had a logo, a working demo (well, almost), and a bunch of concrete conclusions about how we’re going to use notifications across our sites. Really great work that may turn into something meaningful for our business.

Then we sat back and listened to the VAX presentations from twenty-four other teams. My personal favorite was the group that took the assets from Eater’s night at Kachka and reworked it into an interactive virtual reality tour of the place on Oculus Rift. Here is Eater managing editor Sonia Chopra having her mind blown by the experience:

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The future of storytelling is real, friends. As are my dance moves, as became evident when Brian Anderson drafted me to demo a VAX app that rates dancing skill. (Not all VAX projects are serious, strictly speaking.) It’s obvious from the video, but my dancing to vintage Britney rated a perfect 10/10 score.

.@lock demoing an app that reviews your dance moves at #vax15

A video posted by Eden Rohatensky (@edenthecat) on

tyvm.