Now and later: Talking interactives at Hacks/Hackers London

interactive storytelling now and later

Six months after Apple v Adobe first became headline news, I found myself in the basement of a pub explaining how the Guardian builds interactive news features. Although we've made heavy use of Flash in the past, we're currently evaluating the promise of standards-based authoring and I wanted to share some of our findings.

The intrepid London branch of Hacks/Hackers invited me to speak about creating interactive pieces in a newsroom. The audience was a mixture of coding types and journalists, so I wanted to discuss our process without getting too hung up on technical details. Since everyone seems to be singing the praises of HTML5, I wanted to take a practical view on whether it could be used to make some of the pieces we've produced recently at the Guardian.

Our existent workflow copes well with rapid authoring and that's helped a great deal by the tools we use. Creating interactives requires constant dialogue between designers and developers, and the ability to port Adobe Illustrator files into Flash makes this fairly seamless. While Adobe are starting to broaden their tools to encompass the new technology, it's still early days – and in the fast pace of the newsroom, speed and reliability are big factors.

On the plus side, vector drawing, animation, realtime image manipulation and 3D graphics are all there; good start. Features like web sockets and web workers bode well for the future. However, in its current state, the lack of cross-browser consistency and unpredictable performance means we'll have a hard time bringing people comparable experiences. Moving through a series of our more successful pieces, it seems that each one has one or two ingredients that are hard to replicate without Flash. For example, although HTML5 contains greatly improved audiovisual features, it would be difficult to reproduce April's sound map of Caledonian Road without more reliable audio synchronisation capabilities. That said, we look forwards to continued experiments in this area and would imagine that better tools are round the corner.

A PDF of my talk can be found here. My colleague Martin Belam did a nice job summarising the evening as well.

Guardian Eyewitness: bringing high-quality photos to the iPad

I was pleased to play a part in the creation of Eyewitness – the Guardian's iPad app – which celebrates the exceptional photography that appears in the paper's centre pages. The series began when the Guardian switched to the Berliner format in 2005. Every day, our picture desk chooses an extraordinary image. This project marks the first time these have been made available on a computer at a half-decent resolution.

Creating the app was an interesting process. Last year, I helped create an interactive retrospective for the photographer Jane Bown. The most popular feature in that piece turned out to be the full screen mode – readers clearly like blocking out distractions and letting the pictures do the talking.When I asked our picture desk what else we could deliver in this format, editor Ranjit Dhaliwal was quick to suggest Eyewitness.

I started prototyping an interface using Flash. By coincidence, Alan Rusbridger walked by my desk as I was finishing the demo, so I gave him a sneak peek along with a number of other folks including Jon Moore, the Guardian’s mobile product manager. Jon was meeting with Apple later that day to discuss what the Guardian might have ready in time for the iPad launch. The Eyewitness idea seemed like a good fit, so we quickly moved from an initial brainstorming session to fleshing out the prototype with some help from editorial designer, Andy Brockie. It's amazing how much framing things with a iPad bevel JPEG adds to a project's credibility!

Guardian Eyewitness - screenshot of the Flash prototype

Once we'd found an iOS developer in the form of Martin Redington, the build progressed very quickly. Four weeks after, Guardian Eyewitness for the iPad appeared on the shelves of the Apple Store amongst the very first crop of tablet apps. A few weeks later, it was projected behind Steve Jobs during the iOS 4.0 keynote whilst he name checked some of his favourite apps. All in all, a good result!